LINCOLN SQUARE — A single syllable speaks volumes when other neighborhood parents learn that Beneen Prendiville's daughter will be attending Amundsen High School in the fall, having opted not to even sit for Chicago Public Schools' selective-enrollment entrance exam.
"I get, 'Oh. Ohhhhh,'" said Prendiville, a North Center resident.
Though she's long been active with Friends of Amundsen, the school's nonprofit booster/fundraising arm, Prendiville said some people still find it hard to believe that her support extends beyond volunteering.
"When I first got involved with Friends of Amundsen, the response was, 'That's great, but you're not going to send your kid there,'" she said.
"Now the parent reaction is kind of mixed. It's 'That's so great, I wish could be as brave as you,' or complete surprise, 'Oh, you're actually walking the walk,'" Prendiville said.
While 70 percent to 80 percent of neighborhood students in Lincoln Square and North Center attend Amundsen's neighborhood feeder elementary schools such as Waters and Coonley (Prendiville's home school), only 30 percent enroll at the neighborhood high school, a statistic in line with citywide data obtained by DNAinfo.
What happens to the others?
The majority are siphoned off by the city's elite selective-enrollment high schools — typically Lane Tech College Prep High School — or Von Steuben, which has a "magnet" status that lends the school a certain cachet over Amundsen, Amundsen Principal Anna Pavichevich said.
"If given the choice between Amundsen and selective enrollment, the community is choosing selective enrollment," Pavichevich said. "But the tide is starting to turn."
Pavichevich took over the reins at Amundsen, 5110 N. Damen Ave., in 2012. Her arrival coincided with the founding of Friends of Amundsen and the launch of the Grow 47 initiative by 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar, which focused on building a North Side K-12 system for families centered on Amundsen and Lake View high schools.
(Grow 47 has since spun off from the 47th Ward into a stand-alone nonprofit Grow Community.)
"The most important thing we have to do is give people a stable K-12 experience. That's going to keep people in the city," said Pawar, who sees too many families flee his ward for the suburbs when their children reach seventh grade.
"Go to any community outside of an urban area; what do you see? You see a K-12 system that everyone goes through together," said Pawar, a gubernatorial candidate. "I would argue you get a more diverse experience in high school in the suburbs than you do in the city."
It takes a village
Pavichevich's first order of business at Amundsen was shifting the culture and climate within the school, making it a place where teachers wanted to show up to work and students wanted to show up to learn. She added extracurricular activities, including the revival of the school's cheerleading and pompom squads, and introduced the "AHS Viking Way: "accountable, honorable and scholarly.
The school's attendance rate and freshmen-on-track metric (indicating students on track to graduate) shot up quickly as a result, and Amundsen was taken off probation in 2014.
Her next step was improving the school's connection to the community, reassuring neighbors that the school was safe and "that our kids were not, in fact, scary," Pavichevich said.
Friends of Amundsen has been a strong partner in spreading that message within the broader community, and Pavichevich has ceaselessly promoted student and staff accomplishments via social media, made personal visits to elementary schools and thrown open Amundsen's doors as often as possible, be it for tours, open houses or community fests.
"It's important to get kids in the building as often as possible, as young as possible," Prendiville said.
She's brought her own children to numerous events at Amundsen and spent time in the adjacent Winnemac Park, "where it became part of who they were," Prendiville said.
Marketing is only half the battle, though. Programs and facilities need to meet parents' expectations, Pavichevich said.
To that end, she counts among her biggest cheerleaders Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who tapped Amundsen as one of three recipients of a $150,000 grant from Dyson — and 40th Ward Ald. Pat O'Connor, who put his considerable influence behind Grow Community and funneled millions of dollars to Amundsen for technology and infrastructure upgrades.
"Essentially, they put their money where their mouths are," Pavichevich said. "That kind of commitment showed other people there was investment in our future."
Five years into the job, Pavichevich said Amundsen's efforts are beginning to pay off.
"I'm just now getting the kids we recruited, the freshmen and sophomores who are attending here as the fruit of our labors," she said.
"We've created a school that's safe and achieves high academic results" — for students of all abilities, Pavichevich said.
"We can provide a strong academic experience in our [International Baccalaureate] program that yields the expectations that parents have," she said, but at the same time, "we abhor excluding students in the bottom 10 percent of cognitive ability. I'm willing to sacrifice taking the top 2 to 5 percent to maintain inclusivity across the spectrum."
Pawar predicts that within four to five years, Amundsen's neighborhood enrollment will reach 50 percent as more parents like Prendiville take a chance on the school.
"These are the people we're looking for," he said. "You're starting to see it."
Prendiville, a one-time CPS teacher herself who now runs her own business, said while every parent needs to make the best decision for his or her own family, she not only has faith in Amundsen's momentum but believes the school's success is vital to the neighborhood.
She points to the turnaround at Coonley, once a poorly rated school that's now one of the top performers in CPS.
"North Center is completely different. The businesses, everything benefited because a school became strong," Prendiville said.
Healthy neighborhood enrollment at Amundsen would help solidify the area instead of the "K-8 bubble," she said.
Though the message is getting through to parents, who "would love their lives to be easier," students still feel the peer pressure of selective enrollment or bust, Prendiville said.
Pavichevich conceded that there's no "silver bullet" in terms of becoming the neighborhood's school of choice.
"It will happen when it happens," she said. "We're to a point where we have crafted our identity, but we'll never complete the work. We're always going to strive to improve outcomes, but that's the work of any high school."