LINCOLN SQUARE — Amundsen High School students and staff were called out of their classrooms Friday morning for what they thought was a "shelter in place" drill.
In truth, the drill was an elaborate ruse planned by the school's administrators who, decked out in Viking mascot gear, paraded through the hallways tossing candy and spraying silly string as they broadcast the epic news: Just three years after being taken off probation, Amundsen had earned the CPS highest Level 1+ rating.
"Way to go Vikings — give yourselves a round of applause," Amundsen Principal Anna Pavichevich announced later over the PA system.
"This isn't something neighborhood schools don't or can't do. It shows we're competitive, it shows our students are capable of achieving at the highest level," Pavichevich said.
Amundsen has met every standard set by the district while accepting students of all abilities, she emphasized.
"People had counted neighborhood schools out too soon," Pavichevich said.
Staff's elation at the news was palpable.
"We're no longer a diamond in the rough — we're a diamond," said Demetrio Javier, atheletic director and dean of discipline.
To all those folks who say, "We've heard good things about Amundsen, but we're not sure it's 'there' yet," the school now has a simple answer.
"We're there," said Assistant Principal Cybill Ortiz.
The win belongs not just to students and staff, but to the entire neighborhood, which has provided support through organizations like Friends of Amundsen and Grow Community, Pavichevich said.
Local politicians also have boosted Amundsen, at 5110 N. Damen Ave., at every step, particularly 40th Ward Ald. Pat O'Connor, who has steered millions to the school for capital improvements, Pavichevich said.
Though Amundsen's rise may seem meteoric — before Pavichevich's arrival in 2012, the school had been on probation for a decade — progress hasn't been easy.
"We had a huge mountain to climb," said Assistant Principal Minh Nguyen, a staff member since 1994.
"We focused on one thing at a time; we were very strategic with our goals," Nguyen said.
First and foremost was to change the culture and create a climate where students wanted to come to school, he said.
"It starts there. All that will lead to higher attainment," said Nguyen.
In the first year under Pavichevich, administrators tackled the school's attendance rate, which was hovering in the 80 percent range, he said.
The problem, Nguyen said, was that the school was propping up its enrollment by accepting students from across the city, some of whom lived so far away, they often failed to show up.
With stricter admission guidelines, attendance jumped to 92 percent, but enrollment dropped. Because of CPS's student-based budgeting formula, that dip in numbers cost the school $1.3 million in funding for the 2014-15 school year, and $800,000 the next, Nguyen said.
The cuts were a bitter pill to swallow, but Amundsen stayed the course.
"Sometimes when you want to rebuild things, it needs to be torn down," said Nguyen.
Higher attendance trickled down to more freshmen on track to graduate in four years, which in turn led to fewer dropouts, Nguyen said.
Most recently, administrators have been able to turn their attention to increasing the rigor of the school's curriculum and improving students' post-secondary outcomes, he said.
Students' success remains at the heart of everything Amundsen does, Pavichevich said.
The Level 1+ rating is more than a badge of honor — it means more kids are going to college, more kids are staying in college and more kids are in the best position to become well-rounded, productive adults, she said.
"It's really about the students," she said. "It all comes from liking kids."
According to the latest School Progress Report provided by CPS, Amundsen's four-year graduation rate (81 percent), college enrollment rate (64 percent) and college persistence (74 percent) are all above the district's average.
The Five Essentials Survey, developed for CPS by the University of Chicago, rates Amundsen as either "strong" or "very strong" when it comes to the five factors deemed to matter the most for student learning: involved families, supportive environment, ambitious instruction, collaborative teachers and effective leaders.
Amundsen will host an open house for prospective students 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 4.