Rolling out an ambitious four-point strategic plan at a community forum Monday night, Senn High School officials and planning committee members vowed to make their school the best in the city.
Less than three months ago, at a Board of Education meeting, Senn was in danger of being closed.
"If you care about Senn High School, if you care about the students, if you care about the kids in our community, then join in," State Rep. Harry Osterman told a group of about 300.
"When I look at the Senn strategic plan, I imagine what we can do to make this the best general-education high school in the city of Chicago," says Richard Norman, principal at Senn.
Senn's strategic plan is the result of 15 months of studies and discussions by teachers, parents, students and community members, plus interviews and surveys that involved 2,000. The plan calls for academic improvements, an expansion of its International Baccalaureate (IB) program to middle schools, a five-year counseling program for students, a violence prevention program and partnerships with community businesses, alumni and parents.
The plan was approved by the Senn Strategic Planning Committee in October, but not shared publicly until Monday night.
"The process really began to make kids happy about coming here," says Linda England, Senn Local School Council president. "And have the neighborhood have a vested interest, like 'What's going on here? What's happening at Senn?' I think for the last 20 years, nobody from the neighborhood has been inside this building."
"I'm proud to be a Senn student," says Christine Godoy, a senior and student-representative on the Local School Council. "There were many students who were involved in this process."
Now that the plan has been approved, school officials and committee members will swing into action. The committee's next meeting is April 9, Norman said.
While there is a call to involve the community more heavily in Senn, there is also an immediate need to improve the academic results. Senn has succeeded with its International Baccalaureate program, but low state examination scores have kept the school on academic probation.
"We want to make sure that every student that walks through this door graduates, and with that four-year diploma can do great things in life, and be fully prepared," Osterman says. "We think this plan will move us in that direction."
The plan keeps the expanding Rickover Naval Academy High School inside Senn's building on the North Side at 5900 N. Glenwood. The military school has its own sports teams and clubs and in part led to a controversy that included student candlelight vigils around the block-long school and a website, www.savesenn.org, for fear that the whole school would be turned into a military academy combined with a selective-enrollment program.
Rickover has 325 students, created as a separate school under the Renaissance 2010 Plan.
Even now, the tensions are obvious.
"Their (Rickover's) labs are much better than ours," says Brian Roe, a Senn science teacher.
Osterman has come up with funding for new science and computer labs, and says he will look for funding to help with other Senn needs.
Senn's international presence, unmatched in the city, was displayed in a visual way Monday. Students paraded flags from several countries around the auditorium, wildly cheering as the names of the countries were announced. Of the 1,193 students currently attending Senn, 669 are natives of the U.S. The remaining 524 (43.9 percent) come from 58 other countries, including Mexico, India, China and Russia. Forty-six languages are spoken.
"It's sort of like signing on to a travel log without ever leaving the building," Norman says.
School officials point proudly to its International Baccalaureate program and a service learning program that has resulted in students logging more than 100,000 volunteer hours over the last five years.
But Senn's students have not done well in Prairie State Achievement Examinations (PSAT). In 2007, 13.6 percent met or exceeded state standards, down from 25.5 percent in 2005. Senn has been on probation for at least three years and has not met Adequate Yearly Progress requirements any of those three years. Comparatively, three high schools on the Orr campus ranged from 10 to 11 percent in 2007 testing, and has been designated for turnaround status next fall.
"The test scores here are Senn are not where they need to be, by a long shot," Osterman says. "We need to improve that. We want to make this a school, where people through the diversity of our community, that it's a first-choice school for people in our community."
The strategic plan addresses those academic concerns, and includes a green arts-and-design initiative that involves global environmental issues. Other goals include building enrollment in advanced-placement classes, education-to-career programs, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) and taking the IB program to elementary schools that are feeder schools for Senn.
The strategic plan, which has involved input from Chicago Public Schools officials, keeps Senn as one general-education school, and is opposite to a plan proposed by Alderman Mary Ann Smith, who did not speak Monday. Her proposal called for splitting Senn into four parts: the Naval academy, a selective-enrollment school, a vocational school and a college-prep language arts academy.
England wants one school and wants the community involved.
"When people come in, they're blown away with what's happening here," she says. "We want them entrenched. We don't just want them to walk in and walk out. We want them to share their ideas and maybe their talents."
Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.