[Photo by Karen Kring]


Meanwhile, Payton is enjoying the perks of being CPS’ latest crown jewel.

School Board President Gery Chico has hosted media tours of the $33 million building, outfitted with a planetarium, a weather station and observation deck, 10 science labs, two interactive language labs, an orchestra/music room and state-of-the-art projection equipment. Each student gets a laptop computer and an e-mail account. A television studio and an earth lab are in the works.

The super school has emerged as Near North Career Magnet High School, a poorly performing school just a mile away, is being phased out. The Near North building, opened in 1979 but allowed to deteriorate, is being razed to make way for development in the Cabrini-Green area.

When that decision was announced, the board said it would use proceeds from the sale of the land under Near North to build a new school in the area. As it turned out, the new school is serving a very different group of students, including Ashleigh Johnson, a star student from Black Magnet School on the South Side.

Johnson travels 13 miles each way to attend Payton, though the family lives much closer to Lindblom.

“During the open house for prospective students, we heard from college students who said [Payton’s] facilities were better than the colleges they were currently attending,” recalls Carolyn Lofton, Ashleigh’s mother. “That really impressed me.” (See related story on page 10.)

Principal Gail Ward was hired nine months before the school opened. She had time to design a rigorous private school-style curriculum and hire a top-notch staff. And then there were the small, but symbolic details, such as aligning the school’s address, 1034 N. Wells, and phone number to reflect the jersey number of the Chicago Bears star.

Says Ward, “It’s been great to grow a school and gather people who share the same philosophy. We were looking for leaders in their fields, and I had no problem pulling a staff together. I had my staff in place by the summer [2000]. It was a lot of fun. For instance, one of our teachers started e-mailing me about a position here while she lived in China.”

Payton was able to attract talent from inside the system, too. Marilyn Havlik, Payton’s science chair, left a similar post at Kenwood; she says she was excited about Payton once she “heard about the technology that the school would have and found out who my colleagues would be and their wonderful backgrounds and ranges of experience. That’s what excited me about Payton.”

Ward and her faculty visited high-caliber schools to get ideas on curriculum design and student scheduling. They toured area facilities, such as the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, and traveled to schools in North Carolina and New York.

“I never really understood the importance that administration plays in the success of a school,” says Math Department Chair Douglas O’Roark, who was an IB instructor at Lincoln Park High School. “But here, we are supported by the [CPS] system, and that has been such a benefit. We’ve had time to prepare and reflect. We’ve had the time to recruit intellectuals who take education seriously.”

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