Last year, Mather High School in West Ridge posted a suspension rate of 13 per 100 students, about half the city’s average.

Mather, an overcrowded school that enrolls 1,700, relies heavily on alternative punishments, such as Saturday detentions, that keep kids in class during the week. But faculty also make a deliberate attempt to forge close relationships with students through after-school activities.

“The idea is to keep kids active and involved,” says Beth Rollander, dean of students. “Our philosophy is that we are parents to these kids. They need guidance and role models, and of course they need discipline, but in a loving way.”

Most Mather students belong to at least one club or sports team, school officials say, and faculty sponsors are expected to pay attention not only to how well the members sing or play tennis, but also to changes in attendance, grades and behavior.

“Of course I notice a kid’s non-participation in the club,” says special education teacher Fran Gatziolis, who sponsors the Greek Club, with 15 members, and the cheerleading squad, with 20 members. “But I also notice changing behavior,” including different friends. If she suspects trouble, she talks one-on-one with the student and sometimes with the student’s parents and his or her other teachers.

A Greek-American, Gatziolis even has mediated family problems that arise because of “differences between old-world parents and the rebellious kids.”

Gatziolis, who has taught at Mather for eight years, notes that at the beginning of each year, she tries to get to know each student in her clubs so she can sense changes that may arise later.

George Frcka, a physical education teacher and coach of the baseball team, says familiarity with his students and knowledge of troublemakers at the school help him pinpoint potential problems. “I look [out] for an athlete hanging around the wrong group of kids, the gangbangers,” he says. “You can tell by looking at them, the caps turned to the side and things like that.”

Frcka says he’s also attuned to more subtle signs, like a student’s avoiding him in the hall. When problems arise, he talks to the student and sometimes bars him from the team.

Frcka, a six-year Mather teacher, recalls one team member this year who had improved his grades but was caught carrying large amounts of marijuana. Frcka promptly cut the boy from the team, but eventually reinstated him after the boy attended every game to show his loyalty and called Frcka at home to make amends. “He’s a senior, and this is his last hurrah,” Frcka says. “He has a lot of motivation.”

Chris Jones, a math teacher who sponsors the National Honor Society and is assistant coach for two sports teams, says that understanding and good communication are key. A 1986 Mather graduate, he adds, “When I help the kids, it’s on a different level than teacher-student. It’s more of a friend-friend atmosphere.”

Mentoring has become such an integral part of Mather’s philosophy, teachers report, that Principal Art Cervinka asks teacher candidates during their interviews if they’re willing to run an after-school activity. While the answer won’t necessarily determine whether the teacher gets hired, a “yes” improves the candidate’s chances of fitting in, says Gatziolis.

“It’s kind of unique, the way it all works. But it does work,” she says.

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