IB breaks a barrier at Senn

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Neither 15-year-old Joe Figliulo nor his mother Susan thought he would ever set foot in their neighborhood public high school, Senn Metropolitan High.

But the Edgewater school’s fledgling IB program lured him in.

Joe sums up his first-ever public school experience with a teenager’s backhanded compliment. “I thought Senn was gonna suck, but it didn’t suck as much as I thought it would. From what I hear, it’s gotten better,” he says.

Meanwhile, his mom gives the school four stars. “Senn has created another home for him,” raves Susan. “Totally, I didn’t expect this.”

The Figliulos’ experience with Senn illustrates how IB can help change a school both from the inside out—by improving teaching and raising expectations—and from the outside in—by attracting more smart, motivated students.

For years, no one expected much from Senn, which enrolls 1,785 students, 90 percent of whom are low-income. African Americans make up nearly 44 percent of the school population, Hispanics a third, and the rest are Asian and white. Many are recent immigrants living in Uptown, a longtime port of entry to the U.S.

Like most CPS high schools, Senn saw its reading scores decline through the 1990s, hitting a low of 9.2 percent at or above national norms the year Mayor Richard M. Daley took over the school system. Soon after, Senn became one of 38 high schools placed on probation, and it took until June 2000 for the school to get off.

Principal Judith Hernandez says she “leapt on” IB as part of her efforts to turn the school around.”Our application went through without a hitch, to everyone’s surprise—on the outside, that is,” she says. “We have the faculty that can do it.”

To get it done, the faculty prepared not only a set of IB diploma courses for juniors and seniors, but also mapped out pre-IB courses for freshmen and sophomores, a common practice in IB schools.

Senn chose to put English teacher Sharon Butman, a 26-year veteran with a master’s in human services administration, at the center of pre-IB. Butman teaches freshman and sophomore English to pre-IB students and acts as advisor to each incoming group of freshmen. “She knows them,” says IB coordinator Mary Pat McKenna. “We feel that has worked.”

During an extended advisory period in April, Butman delicately balances meeting the schoolwide demand for test preparation with the rebellious quirks of a couple of pre-IB freshmen. While most of the class dutifully reads the workbook passages in order, Joe Figliulo flips through the pages, reading whichever passage attracts his attention. Another student, Joe’s friend Katie Clark, complains she is tired of reading, then proceeds to open her classroom literature textbook.

In her capacity as division teacher, Butman keeps a watchful eye on her charges. At spring report card pickup, she made sure to introduce Susan to Joe’s classmate and math tutor, Sameera Faiz. Though Joe’s verbal skills are strong, his aptitude for and interest in math are much weaker.

“She’s cool,” says Joe, who divides the Senn students he’s met into two camps: “the kids who are stone stupid and don’t care about anything” and “the kids who are so concerned with their future they don’t have time to just talk.” He admires Faiz’s ability to bridge the divide. “She’s one of the few people who wants to get into college, and you can still have an intelligent conversation with her.”

Seal of quality

Joe’s arrival at Senn is a tribute to the marketing power of the IB name. “As we all know, if you live in Chicago you have to send the kids to Catholic school,” Susan notes wryly. For the 14 years she has lived in Edgewater, she and her middle-income neighbors have studiously avoided sending their children to Senn.

Susan remembers dropping Joe off at preschool, then taking a walk to Senn’s massive campus. “Oh, it was like Fortress Senn,” she says. “There was never not a police car there. I didn’t know anything about it, but it looked very forbidding to me. I thought I would never set foot in there.”

But by the time Joe hit 7th grade at St. Gertrude’s, one of a group of parish schools that have been consolidated into the Northside Catholic Academy, Susan feared her son’s emerging anarchist philosophy and punk-rock flair was unlikely to go over well at a Catholic high school. “It got clearer and clearer, this is not the way for Joe,” she says. “That’s when we started to think seriously about public schools.”

Though regional college preps like Northside have the same minimum score requirements as the system’s new IB programs, stiff competition for these exclusive schools ensures that the spots go to kids with off-the-chart verbal and mathematical talent. That’s not Joe. “I’d much rather read a book than learn how to do advanced calculus,” he says. He’s put his impressive verbal skills to work in the past at Northwestern University’s prestigious Center for Talent Development, which serves gifted youth, and more recently through Chicago’s Gallery 37.

But math remains a constant struggle, and that weak spot ruled out both college preps and Lincoln Park’s IB program, which requires applicants to have ninth-stanine scores in both math and reading.

It was at this point that Joe’s father and Susan’s ex-husband, Steve Figliulo, learned that Senn had an IB program. “I heard IB and I perked right up,” she recalls. “I didn’t know a whole lot about the program, but I knew it would be a whole lot more demanding than your average high school program.”

In January 2000, Joe and Susan visited Senn, where his mother says they were welcomed with open arms. IB coordinator McKenna says that of the 22 freshmen who entered Senn as pre-IB students this school year, only Joe and one other came from parochial school. More are among this year’s prospects, she adds.

In a Catalyst interview conducted around the same time as the Figliulos’ first visit to Senn, McKenna said teachers initially feared the program couldn’t be done with students whose scores were less than stellar. “At first it was sort of daunting because all we could see was Lincoln Park, where they take all ninth stanine. Through training, we found out that’s one model.”

Senn and other Chicago high schools new to IB visited Rufus King High in Milwaukee, which offers IB to students with a broader range of scores. “So then we said, ‘We can do it,'” recalls Principal Judith Hernandez.

In addition to recruiting 8th-graders, McKenna encourages freshmen with good academic records who did not apply for the program to give pre-IB courses a try. And some students who start IB don’t stick. “There’s some exiting, there’s some entering,” she observes.

Conversations with students indicate not all the entering is voluntary. “When I first got into this program, I didn’t know what it was,” recalls junior Sylvia Gonzalez. “I just got put in it.”

Joe says Senn still puts the squeeze on kids to fill seats. “Half my friends who are in there aren’t there because they want to be,” he asserts. “They scored high on the Iowa [test], so they were put in there. They’re trying to get out. They don’t want to be pressured to achieve.”

The pressure of moving from pre-IB to IB course work proved a bit too much for Gonzalez. In January, she dropped two of the courses she would need for the full IB diploma, Theory of Knowledge and Information Technology in a Global Society. She still plans to sit for IB certificate exams in history, science and English.

“They are much harder classes,” she says. “They give us less assignments, [but] lots of research paper writing. … It’s college prep, but we weren’t prepared for it.” By her own account, Gonzalez has worked very hard for her 3.4 grade-point average, but seems sufficiently inured not to notice. “I get home around 5, 5:30. Last night I ended up working until 10:30. I don’t know, is that a lot?”

The workload is taking a toll on her classmates, too. “Last year, everybody looked beautiful,” Gonzalez observes. “This year everybody looks worse. Now they’ve got bags under their eyes, and they’re drinking a lot of coffee. People are falling asleep in the classes. Some are getting depressed.” Since freshman year, Gonzalez says her cohort has dwindled from 32 to “about 13.”

Program ‘inflexible’

With few exceptions, Joe gives his teachers high marks and respects the work they do with students who frequently appear unmotivated. (See Catalyst March 2001.) “Overall, the teachers are really cool,” he says. “It seems like their talents and energy are wasted on people who couldn’t care less.”

But Susan Figliulo is not totally satisfied with the level of academic challenge Senn has offered. In her opinion, IB has proven too easy for Joe in some areas, too hard in others. She is dissatisfied with the academic rigor of his social studies course and wishes he had the option to take Latin instead of Spanish. Despite Faiz’s tutoring and help from his teacher, Joe failed first semester advanced algebra and is making up the lost half credit in a regular-level course.

Susan says that her dissatisfaction is a small but significant factor in her decision to sell the family’s sprawling Victorian house and move to Evanston. Though she’s sad to leave Senn, she and Joe are hopeful that Evanston Township High School can better accommodate Joe’s academic needs.

At Evanston, says Joe, “You can take advanced English and idiot math.” Changing courses is tough for Senn’s IB students. “I wanted to take advanced computer, but if you changed a class, you had to drop IB. It’s very inflexible.”

Though Senn’s IB academics still need fine-tuning, both Susan and Joe say the basics are in place: a safe school with caring teachers who encourage students to try. And Joe’s presence there could be compared to the arrival of young, transient artists in neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Pilsen—the first small sign of an eventual middle-class influx.

Susan is confident that Senn will only get better, and she’s been spreading the word to her neighbors, most of whom have kids younger than Joe.