LINCOLN SQUARE — In just two short years, Amundsen High School has gone from being on probation to achieving a Level One quality rating from Chicago Public Schools.
"I am on Cloud One," principal Anna Pavichevich said of the news, announced Friday.
Level One schools are just a notch below Level One-Plus, the highest rating within CPS. Level One, typically attained at the secondary level only by the district's selective enrollment high schools, is defined as a "high performance" institution and "a good school choice," according to CPS guidelines.
Pavichevich revealed the rating to students by papering the hallways of Amundsen, 5110 N. Damen Ave., with fliers declaring "We're No. 1" and playing "We Are the Champions" over the school's loudspeakers.
It's been a fast rise for the school, which was on probation as recently as spring 2014.
Pavichevich was hired at the end of the 2012 school year. Her arrival coincided with the formation of Friends of Amundsen, a community group that supports the school less from a financial standpoint and more from a "spread the good word" marketing approach.
Early in her tenure, Pavichevich met with members of Friends of Amundsen, and received honest feedback from what parents were looking for in a neighborhood high school — what it would take for them to seriously consider Amundsen as a viable option for their children.
"They helped me understand that we're not a school that reflects the values of some corporate entity," Pavichevich said. "We're a school that reflects the values, goals and expectations of this community."
At the same time Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) made building a cohesive k-12 neighborhood school system the ward's top priority, an effort that eventually expanded to encompass Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th) and Ald. Tom Tunney (44th).
The three are collectively directing resources toward Amundsen and Lake View High School, with O'Connor securing Tax Increment Financing dollars that paid for capital upgrades at Amundsen over the summer, like a new gym floor.
"Everyone agreed we have to do this" — politicians, educators and community members, said Pawar.
This perfect storm of political will, community interest and school leadership combined to put Amundsen on what Pavichevich called an "exponential trajectory."
Early wins included a significant bump in the school's attendance rate and morale boosters like the return of the school's cheerleading squad. After focusing on the Amundsen's culture her first year, Pavichevich then turned her emphasis to instruction and student achievement.
"Something very real is happening in the classroom," said Pavichevich. "We do things a lot differently — the way we're teaching, the way we're organized, the expectations.
"It starts with the teachers ... and the teachers have responded in spades," said Pavichevich. "If we say, 'Go this high,' they do, and then another five inches."
One example of the new approach to instruction: The creation of "course teams" — groups of faculty members who teach the same subject — "to make the learning environment more successful," she said.
These teams coordinate their curriculum, set baseline goals for students' mastery of the material and develop interventions if students fall behind.
Students also understand that they play a key role in moving Amundsen forward.
"Students are coming to us with a different mindset," Pavichevich said. "We are attracting students who are prepared for a rigorous academic experience."
That's not just hype, said Wendy Vasquez, a member of Friends of Amundsen.
"The truth is that Ms. P., her administrative team, the Amundsen teachers and students are working hard to make Amundsen a top high school. This Level One rating is a reflection of the great things that happen inside that building every day."
As important as reaching Level One is for Amundsen — "Our students are beaming with pride," Pavichevich said — the school's success, reflected in its new rating, has even broader implications for the community.
"It doesn't matter if you have kids, Amundsen is the linchpin" to stabilizing the ward's neighborhoods, said Pawar.
North Center, Lincoln Square and Lakeview boast top-notch elementary schools, but families too often run for the suburbs when their children reach their tween years, he said.
At Coonley Elementary, 4046 N. Leavitt St., "we have five kindergarten classes and one eighth grade, and I'm seeing that everywhere. That's the problem," he said.
"All of those families are leaving and they're being replaced by the same kindergarten families," he said.
The resulting move in-move out churn is driving up housing costs — median home prices in North Center are the highest in the city — putting the ward out of reach for a lot of home buyers.
"If I can keep half those people, then all of a sudden we have people staying over the long term," Pawar said. "Then it's not just families with young children; it's empty nesters, it's seniors, it's young people. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm going to keep evangelizing and doing everything in my power to get dollars to those schools."
Amundsen principal Anna Pavichevich. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Amundsen's Level One status is one more step toward encouraging families to take a chance on Pawar's vision for a neighborhood k-12 system, but for Pavichevich, the ranking has a more tangible meaning.
"The aspect of this Level One result that is so gratifying to me is it demonstrates our students are showing growth," she said.
"We don't get to pick and choose our students. Whatever abilities students come to us with, we're accelerating and optimizing," said Pavichevich. "We're a neighborhood high school ... and our kids are learning."
Amundsen is hosting an open house for middle-school students and their families, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Nov. 7, at 5110 N. Damen Ave.
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