Englewood: Aiming to shake a bad reputation

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Chicago Public Schools is taking a second crack at reviving Lindblom, a once highly regarded high school in West Englewood that has lost much, if not all, of its academic stature.

This time, the plan is to reopen it in September as Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective enrollment college prep. District officials hired a new principal, Alan Mather, who has top notch credentials, having spent six years as assistant principal of Northside College Prep, which posts the highest test scores in the district. It’s also spending $40 million to upgrade the facility, including fume hoods in science labs and terrazzo floors in the hallways.

But persuading enough families with smart kids to buy into the new program has been a tough sell. Only 17 students who passed the entrance exam accepted Lindblom’s offer of admission.

“[Lindblom] never had an opportunity to do the marketing and recruiting that all the other schools do,” says Jeffrey Gray, who manages selective enrollment for the district.

The low response triggered a recruiting blitz. Mather held information sessions across the city where he could personally recruit 8th-graders to sign up. The district sent letters to more than 1,000 applicants who had just missed the bar to be eligible for admission to a selective high school, and invited them to attend an information session and consider giving Lindblom a shot.

By late-June, 110 of the 150 seats for this fall’s freshman class were spoken for.

One of those students is Cedric Ferguson, a recent graduate of Rosenwald-Carroll Elementary in Wrightwood. On his application, Cedric noted Whitney Young as his only choice, but he did not get in. Then he and his mother, Cynthia, attended one of Lindblom’s recruiting sessions and liked what they heard.

Cynthia Ferguson says she was “amazed” by the investment and by Mather’s experience. “The program seemed awesome.”

Cedric says he’s excited to be admitted in the new Lindblom’s first class . “It’s pretty exciting,” he says. “It’s like a challenge to restart the school.”

Some families remain wary

However, at least one parent who bought into Lindblom’s new concept early on has reconsidered.

Janeen Glover was initially impressed by the effort to reopen Lindblom and, after receiving an acceptance letter last winter, signed up her daughter Kiersten, a recent graduate of Providence-St. Mel on the West Side. But a few weeks later, Glover had second thoughts and decided to enroll Kiersten at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep instead because the program already had a track record.

Glover’s hesitance underscores one major hurdle—academic reputation—that Mather will need to overcome to restore Lindblom’s academic reputation. Another is ensuring that students are safe traveling to and from a school in West Englewood—an area among those with the highest violent crime rates in the city.

Safety and security are top priorities, says Mather. The building is equipped with high-tech closed circuit television, and Mather has arranged for CTA buses to stop directly in front of the building. The accommodations for safe public transportation were especially appealing to Ferguson, whose son will travel four miles by bus to Lindblom come fall.

“The bus route is clear cut,” she says. “There’s not a lot of walking once you get off the bus.”

Mather has also met with a new community group, local politicians and pastors, but his public relations efforts have been somewhat curtailed.

For liability reasons, Mather is not allowed to give full tours of the school while it is under construction. (Work is scheduled to be completed by December.)

Also, district officials may be making conflicting public statements about Lindblom. Dawn Cherie Jasper, a former member of Lindblom’s local school council who graduated from the school in 1975, notes that on separate occasions she has heard Lindblom touted as a selective enrollment school and mentioned among a list of underperformers.

“Mixed messages like that are not going to encourage the parents to send [their children],” Jasper says.

Mather is reaching out to local organizations, but may run into some resistance from residents who resent the reopening of a high school that few neighborhood children will be able to attend, says Rev. Robin Hood, a lead organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

About 20 percent of Lindblom’s incoming freshman class are from Englewood and West Englewood, says Mather. He also notes that he is mindful of establishing a peaceful co-existance between the new 9th-graders and the 52 seniors who have spent the past two years housed at an elementary school on 37th Street.

Despite the multitude of challenges, Mather is ready. “It’s going to be great,” he says.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.