Lincoln Park High a model for Vallas

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When Paul Vallas talks about creating top-flight academic programs at struggling neighborhood schools, he cites Lincoln Park High School, with its flourishing International Baccalaureate (IB) and “double honors” programs.

“Think of it,” he says, “13 Lincoln Parks, all across the city.”

However, it took a lot more than IB and honors programs to turn a bottom-of-the barrel school named Waller into the respectable Lincoln Park High. Riding a wave of gentrification, a determined school administrator rallied community and central-office support to overhaul the entire school and make it acceptable to the area’s growing middle class.

Twenty years ago, the school near Armitage and Halsted “hardly had a student in it who could be someplace else,” recalls Margaret Harrigan, the former district superintendent who spearheaded the school’s turnaround.

Harrigan, now on the faculty of the DePaul University School of Education, started with the school’s pervasive graffiti. Immediately after being named district superintendent, she ordered custodians to remove all the graffiti over spring break. With an assist from the central office, she arranged for an interior makeover to be done over the summer. “When the students came back in September, it looked like a brand-new school,” she says.

Her first local allies were students, the two top officers of Waller’s marginal student council. In the fall of their senior year, they took on the task of getting the noisy and trash-strewn lunchroom under control. Enduring jeers, they walked the aisles every day, asking their peers to bus their trays. Next, they brought in a boom-box and offered their classmates a deal: When the noise level is low enough, they said, the radio will play. When voices rise, the music dies. “And they would sit there, with the hand on the button,” Harrigan says. “I’ve seen few people as powerful as that in my life.”

Midway through her second year as district superintendent, Harrigan replaced the school’s principal; the new one started weeding out bad teachers, diligently filling out paperwork and attending hearings. She went through two music teachers before finding one who was ready to turn the anemic band into a point of school pride.

Meanwhile, Harrigan capitalized on the city’s budding magnet-school program, called Access to Excellence, to retool Waller’s feeder elementary schools and make available K-12 programs in foreign languages (beginning at LaSalle), fine arts (Franklin) and math/science (Newberry).

Harrigan aggressively marketed the high school, inviting neighborhood groups to hold their meetings there and encouraging white parents to send their children there. She started with the parents whose children had attended Ogden Elementary when Harrigan was principal there. “They simply said, ‘I trust you,’ ” Harrigan recalls. “So that was a pretty big obligation. Things just had to go right.”

The name change came in 1980. IB came in 1981. By that time, the school had gone from 4 percent white to 35 percent white, and enrollment had almost doubled, to 2000, says Harrigan.

Today, the school’s enrollment is 45 percent black, 26 percent white, 20 percent Latino and 9 percent Asian. About half the students are low income.

Phyllis Wright, the school’s assistant principal and unofficial historian, marvels at the changes she’s seen. “If 35 years ago, when I started teaching here, sombody would have said, You’re going to be in the finest academic school in the city,” she would have scoffed. “Or if they’d said the six-flat on Fremont is going to sell for $3 million …”

Wright says that even with all the groundwork Harrigan laid, the IB program took a while to come into its own. “It took about six or seven years before we were really comfortable,” she says.

Harrigan thinks that Vallas’ plan to create IB and similar programs has a number of things going for it that she didn’t have: namely, money for extensive capital improvements, and new cooperation among the school system, the city and the park district. Harrigan got the city and park district to create a large, landscaped campus around Lincoln Park High, but it was a struggle. “All of these agencies are on board now,” she notes, “and that’s important.”

However, local leadership is No. 1 in her view. “You have to have someone very strong and very motivated,” she says. “There’s every kind of discouragement that hits you.” What this leadership must forge, she says, is community support, parental trust and a good faculty. “You need all those ingredients,” she says.