Roosevelt robotics club Credit: photo by John Booz

As Alejandra Alvarez neared the end of her third day as principal at Roosevelt High in 2002, one of her students was stabbed on the front steps. The student survived, as did three other teens shot just outside Roosevelt earlier that year. But the school’s reputation was flat-lining.

“It’s devastating, just devastating,” says Alvarez. “People take one incident and, even though there are 100 other [positive] things going on, they focus on that one incident.”

The school has spent the ensuing years working to resurrect its reputation in the Albany Park community. It’s been an uphill battle. Roosevelt has revamped its curriculum, increased security, boosted its graduation rate and raised the number of graduates it sends to four-year colleges. But many residents still see Roosevelt as the school of last resort.

The school sits just blocks from Von Steuben Metro, a magnet high school that kids aim to get into. Other nearby prestigious schools, such as Northside College Prep and Lane Tech, also accept many of the area’s top students—sapping academic motivation and students’ self-confidence, according to several Roosevelt teachers.

“Some of these kids come in here and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” contends English teacher Scott Doolittle.

When Alvarez took over, the school’s graduation rate was a dismal 55 percent and just 15 percent of students met standards on state tests. Last year, the graduation rate rose to 64 percent and 20 percent of students met state standards. Tighter security and new initiatives are at work, including programs funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2005, Roosevelt was named one of 11 “EXCELerator” schools by the foundation. Those schools had promising turnarounds afoot and were rewarded with $16 million to split on college readiness programs.

Roosevelt is using the money to revamp its English and math curricula. The school opted for SpringBoard, a suite of rigorous and integrated lessons that prepare students for Advanced Placement courses. The grant also funded AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), an elective that teaches mid-tier students effective study habits and the value of a college degree.

Sumeera Nazmeem, a 16-year-old sophomore who emigrated from India seven years ago, says AVID completely changed her career aspirations and she now has her sights set on college.

“I was thinking that after high school, I was going to work at Subway, because I work there now. But now I have changed plans. I’m thinking about college,” she says.

Roosevelt also has reached out to the community, most visibly through its musical program, which lay dormant for 40 years before being resurrected in 2002. Cliff Gabor, who helps run the program, says it helps Roosevelt challenge its stereotype as a dangerous, lackluster school.

Shows are open to the community and the school buses in nearby elementary students to watch for free. It provides parents and prospective students with a chance to see that the school functions safely and offers unique enrichment programs, adds Gabor.

Prior to Alvarez’ hiring, Roosevelt was headed by Miguel Trujillo, a principal chosen by the School Board who cleaned house and hired new teachers. One of them, Michael Kroski, says that when he was offered the job in 2000, the school’s reputation was so bad that his peers advised him not to take it. But he wanted the challenge and the chance to help run the school’s popular robotics club.

Kroski says Alvarez has taken the school to higher ground, asking teachers and students to take a larger role. Upperclassmen now mentor incoming freshman, and student leaders are put in charge of organizing school assemblies and what’s called “International Night”—a well-attended extravaganza for the community that shows off the school’s rich cultural heritage.

Students see the school improving.

“There are still gangs in the school, but there are gangs in every school,” contends John Tacuri, a 17-year-old sophomore at Roosevelt who participates in the robotics club. “But there are no shootings anymore. There hasn’t been any in six years. That’s really all there is to say.”

Still, teachers are painfully aware just how difficult it is to change a school’s image. Kroski says he has heard rumors that elementary teachers tell students they need to score well on standardized tests or they’ll get stuck going to Roosevelt.

Says Kroski: “Unfortunately, our reputation is really hard to get rid of.”

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