WEST TOWN — Roberto Clemente Community Academy is named for a Hall of Fame baseball player, so perhaps it's not surprising that its principal would liken the high school's transformation to the film "Field of Dreams." Says Marcey Sorensen: "If you build it, they will come."
An improvement of Clemente's performance has been a team effort, she says — an effort that includes a group of future-focused parents who're trying to spread the word that the neighborhood high school should no longer be seen as "the school of last resort."
Located at 1147 N. Western Ave. on the border of Wicker Park and Humboldt Park, Clemente was on academic probation for 19 years before improving to a 2+ CPS rating under Sorensen, who came aboard in June of 2011. Schools are ranked from Level 1+ to Level 3, with Level 1+ being the top rating and Level 3 the lowest.
Over the past five years, Clemente has seen its graduation rate climb from 55.8 to 80.1 percent — above the CPS average of 76 percent — and attendance improve from 70.1 to 83.3 percent, Sorensen said.
Bucktown resident and dad Scott Suckow is a co-founder of Explore Clemente, a group made up of parents of elementary-aged children working to spread the news that Clemente is now a legitimate pick. Close to 100 parents of elementary-aged children have expressed interest in Explore Clemente's guided school tours, which began this past fall. Two upcoming tours are scheduled for 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 23 or 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 26.
Suckow sees Clemente as a "lower pressure local option" than selective enrollment schools, which carries an admissions competition he feels "is not healthy for kids." In the wake of a University of Chicago study that found selective schools do almost nothing to boost academic performance, Suckow said, "the outcomes aren't any better for those kids anyway."
"For so long, [Clemente] was treated as the school of last resort. That's not what makes a good neighborhood school. [Clemente] has been improving," said Suckow, the father of a kindergartener and second- and sixth-grader at Pulaski International School in Bucktown.
Suckow says his interest in Clemente was "a strategic decision" to extend the International Baccalaureate curriculum his children have at Pulaski into their high school years.
Destany Torres, a senior at Clemente and a Humboldt Park resident, was accepted to Lincoln Park High School in her freshman year but insisted on going to her neighborhood school — despite her parents wanting her to go to Lincoln Park.
"My mom dropped out of Clemente sophomore year and my dad in his freshman year. They said it was more violent when they went here in the late 1970s and early 80s. I did a shadow day [where she attended classes with student] and I knew I wanted to go here. It's smaller and feels more like a family," Torres said.
Torres is enrolled in the Clemente's Careers and Technical Education (CTE) courses, studying allied health on top of her general diploma classes. Before graduating this spring, she can apply to take a test and get her phlebotomy technician certificate, which she plans to do.
"I want to do pre-med [in college] and be a surgeon, but I am starting small first," Torres said.
Sorensen said she is "thrilled" by the efforts of Suckow and another parent, Wicker Park resident Julie Dickinson, to boost the campus.
"It's really positive after Clemente having a challenged reputation for as long as it did," Sorensen said. "I remember parents looking at me and saying, 'The data [on the school] is not quality and I've heard it is not safe.' And that dialog has changed; parents want to come into the building."
Clemente's transformation to an International Baccalaureate school curriculum was announced in 2012 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, giving the students an opportunity to get a jump on college through the academically rigorous program. City officials tout "a 100 percent graduation rate, and 81 percent enrollment in college" at IB schools, a much high rate than their peers nationally.
Sorensen said Clemente's percentage of graduates who enroll in college increased from 37.9 percent in 2011 to 43.3 percent at the close of the last school year. Additionally, between 2011 and 2016, a "Freshman on Track" metric that uses a combination of grades and attendance to predict how likely a freshman will graduate has jumped from 58.9 to 93.3 percent, Sorensen said.
Sorensen credited new school personnel "focused on supporting students and their families to create a safe and inclusive environment" as well as hiring "different teachers with higher expectations." The school also scored a three-year, $5.8 million grant for a science and technology lab, professional development and social and emotional support programs.
"It'd been an impressive school reform effort all coalescing at the same time," Sorensen said.
Sorensen said there are multiple academic options for students, including the IB honors and diploma program plus Advanced Placement (AP) classes and the Careers and Technical Education (CTE) courses that also offers media broadcasting and culinary arts.
Dickinson said her children, a son, Elliot, who's in sixth grade, and her daughter, Natalie, a fourth-grader at LaSalle II — a magnet cluster school on the border of Wicker Park and East Village neighborhoods — will likely explore all high schools, including selective enrollment and neighborhood schools.
"Elliot told me last year that he wanted to go to high school with his friends. With Clemente, that's a possibility. They have a lot of capacity to take on more students," Dickinson said.
Dickinson added, "I do want to give Elliot and Natalie the space to test, tour schools, see what options they have and together make a decision that's the best fit for them. Clemente is high on the list."
About eight to 10 neighborhood schools in West Town and Humboldt Park feed into Clemente, and Sorensen said that in the past few years, more freshmen have been coming from Goethe, LaSalle II, Pulaski and Sabin elementary schools in Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square, areas that are making Clemente's students more diverse. The school's current student demographics are 67.7 percent Hispanic, 29.7 percent black, 1.1 percent white and 1.4 percent other. Almost 94 percent are low-income students.
The school is underutilized with 780 students in a building the district says can handle 3,000. Enrollment bumped up from last year's 766 student count, though Sorensen says the school's optimal enrollment should be about 2,000.
"We want kids from all sides of Division [Street] to make Clemente their high school of choice," Sorensen said.
Torres, who was interviewed at the school on Wednesday with three of her peers who are also on track to graduate, said, "More people should give Clemente a chance. Take it from us, we fell in love with it."
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