Principal leads charge at Gage Park

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In 2005, Wilfredo Ortiz, then principal of Gage Park High School, checks a student's schedule to make sure he is not ducking out early.

Photo by Jason Reblando

In 2005, Wilfredo Ortiz, then principal of Gage Park High School, checks a student's schedule to make sure he is not ducking out early.

Anita Andrews, assistant principal at Gage Park High, likes to tell this story about her boss, Principal Wilfredo Ortiz:

Driving on 55th Street to a central office meeting, Ortiz spotted a group of truant Gage Park students strolling down the sidewalk. He pulled over, collected their ID tags and ordered them back to school. He went back, too, and called their parents. When he couldn’t get through, “He got back in his car, went to their houses, and brought their parents back to the school building,” Andrews recalls with amazement. “I don’t know where he gets all that energy.”

Ortiz’s energetic hands-on leadership is one reason, say staff and students, that Gage Park posted the largest recent increase in average daily attendance of any CPS high school. Between 2002 and 2004, the rate rose from 84 percent to 88 percent. Last school year, it held steady at 88 percent, two points above the citywide average. Ortiz was disappointed that it leveled off—he had hoped to hit 90 percent—but also reassured. The gain “wasn’t a fluke,” he says. “The strategies we put in place actually worked.”

Ortiz arrived at Gage Park in 2003 with a solid track record as principal of Curie High in the late 1990s and, most recently, as the district’s chief officer of high school programs. He lost that position in a central office reorganization and was sent to Gage Park, where his two predecessors had been removed by the board.

Here’s how Ortiz, his staff and students, say the school got more kids to class.

RAPPORT Seniors at Gage Park say they rarely saw their old principal but that Ortiz is everywhere. “He actually comes in the hallway, talks to the kids.

He asks us for our opinions and makes sure students go to class. He visits the classes, too,” says senior Brandy Moore. “It shows he cares.”

George Ross, Gage Park’s longtime dean of students, insists that the principal’s visibility has an impact on students’ attendance. “When you build a good rapport with kids, you get the respect, and you get results.”

Ross recalls an episode under the previous principal when a boy she stopped to reprimand began shouting at her because he didn’t realize who she was. “It’s real bad when a kid goes off on someone and doesn’t know it’s the principal.”

SAFETY Gage Park has eight gangs in its attendance area, according to Ross. The school had already made some strides in improving safety under the previous administrator, increasing its security force from 7 to 15, he says. But under Ortiz, security became much stricter, he reports.

“Freshman year, we had a fight every class period and after school,” recalls senior Josie Anderson. Fighting has diminished now that security enforces a no-tolerance policy on gang signs and signals, she explains. “You wear your belt a certain way, you’ve got to fix your belt. You wear your hair a certain way, you’ve got to fix your hair. They are on it.”

Senior Brandy Moore says she feels safer. “You don’t have to worry about anybody jumping you.”

“If the school is safer, kids are going to want to come to school,” says Ross. “Kids like order. They complain about it, but they like it.”

RULES CPS students typically must wear a photo identification tag with their class schedule on it. That lets staff know where kids should be when they find them out of class. But students didn’t always wear the tags, and security guards didn’t always check them.

That has changed. To model the rule, Ortiz has his staff wear ID tags, too. Otherwise, kids will challenge being asked to wear theirs, he says. “They’ll say, ‘Where’s yours?'”

Under Ortiz, security guards have grown more vigilant about class cutting, kids say. “Long time ago, it was easy,” recalls senior Christopher Jamfi. “The security guards were like, ‘Where you supposed to be?’ You tell them what class you’re supposed to be in. They let you sit there and talk to them.”

HOME VISITS For serious truancy cases, Ortiz goes knocking with counselor Luis Flores at his side. Andrews, the assistant principal, occasionally does home visits as well, usually on off hours, such as on her way to church Sunday morning. Once, she tracked down a truant senior at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night.

“At first they’re shocked, because they can’t believe you’re there,” says Andrews. “But especially the kids who we got back on track, they’re relieved. They like to know that you genuinely care, that [school attendance] is not just a policy.”

“It’s good for the community to see you out there,” Ortiz adds. “They take what we’re saying a lot more seriously.”

Ortiz also hired a retired CPS attendance officer, Sam Aguirre, to make more regular home visits. Aguirre works in Gage Park’s attendance office three days a week.

Visiting homes is crucial not only for the most severe cases, Ortiz says, but also to alert parents to their child’s problem when a working phone number isn’t available.

Few high schools have someone like Aguirre on staff and often point to money as the reason. Ortiz got creative. When a teacher is absent, he has another staff member supervise the students while they use computers in the library media center, thus saving the cost of a substitute teacher. He then uses the savings to pay Aguirre. On days when sub money is not available, Aguirre works for free.

“You just have to find community people who want to do this,” says Ortiz.

“I enjoy what I’m doing,” says Aguirre. “It’s not a job.”

ROUTINES The School Board requires teachers to record every attempt to reach the family of a truant student. Ortiz decided to enforce the rule by asking them to turn in their phone logs to the attendance office every Friday. “You cannot assume that it is being done. You have to monitor it.”

Gage Park pays attention to the details of class cutting, too. Teachers submit cut slips daily to the attendance office. On the first cut, an automated home phone call goes out to the parent. On the third cut, the attendance staff calls home; if they can’t reach a parent, the office sends a certified letter. Phone logs are kept on every phone call so that if a parent claims that nobody called, says Andrews, “I can go to the date and show them their phone number.”

Determined to boost attendance further, Gage Park is attempting new strategies this year, including a Saturday detention for class-cutters, a freed teacher with the full-time job of tracking down kids who skip class, and new incentives, such as quarterly dances open only to students whose attendance rate was at least 90 percent for the marking period.

Yet simply maintaining the school’s attendance gains is hard work, Ortiz says. “You cannot let up,” he says. “You’ve just got to stay with it every minute, every day until you change the whole culture of the school.”