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Following Scandal, New Senn Interim Principal Mary Beck Aims To Enhance Community


Photo: SennArts Facebook

Somewhere in between playing football and baseball, taking part in science olympiads, watching and analyzing movies and presiding over the student council, Harry Warnaar has time to be, simply, a senior at Nicholas Senn High School.

And this year, the 17-year-old student in the school’s Senn Arts Visual Arts Program is noticing some changes that the new interim principal hopes will make a positive difference.

Those changes include, among other things, working to enhance a sense of community on the school campus, he said.

“Whereas before, there was this sense that you go to Senn and you go to this school, and now it’s this sense that they are taking Senn into their own identities, like they are part of the school and Senn is part of them,” Warnaar said on Wednesday.

Mary Beck previously served as assistant principal at Friedrich W. Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center in North Park. She was hired to replace Susan Lofton. The former principal was removed on July 21 as a result of a Chicago Public Schools Inspector General’s investigation, according to 48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman’s website. It is unclear if that investigation is still continuing, and the Office of the Inspector General did not respond to a request for comment by press time on Friday.

Beck told Edgeville Buzz that she talked with a number of students, staff, parents and community members before classes started to learn what they liked about Senn and what they think should be changed. She also sent out a survey to the staff to gather comments. A common theme emerged.

“Everyone here needs a sense of community, and everything I’ve done is to help build that community,” she said of the campus located at 5900 N. Glenwood Ave. in Edgewater.

Beck has worked to improve that in small ways for the campus of 1,369 students.

For instance, the school held a club day at the end of the first week of school to help students learn more about Senn’s extra-curricular organizations.

“We had all our clubs and activities set up on the front yard, and they went outside 30 minutes early,” she said. “(Students were) all asked to sign up for an activity. Kids who didn’t find clubs that they wanted created clubs on the spot and found sponsors. And I think it was a success, because at 3:15 p.m. no one was leaving.”

Another example: Even students who are not interested in becoming career musicians are now encouraged to learn and play instruments in the band, orchestra and ensemble programs. They can begin those programs starting in their sophomore year.

“There’s so much talent in this building, and (it’s about) finding ways for people to recognize it and enhance it,” Beck said. She said the school will continue to do this by maintaining its partnerships with Raven Theatre in Edgewater, Steppenwolf Theatre Co., The Goodman and others.

Senn is also working to reinvigorate its partnership with Loyola Lake Shore Campus.

Academically, Senn has continued its International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a challenging college-preparatory program offered to qualified, highly motivated 11th- and 12th-grade students, Senn’s website said.

“The program requires a two-year study of six subjects and a 4,000-word extended essay on an independent investigation of a self-selected topic. In addition, IB Diploma candidates are required to gain experience in a range of extracurricular pursuits including the arts, community service, and physical activities.”

According to the Chicago Public School’s website, Senn also offers the IB Middle Years and Diploma Programmes, a selective IB Diploma Prep Program, and a Magnet Fine and Performing Arts Program. Students living within the attendance boundary are eligible for the neighborhood IB strands in environmental science and digital journalism.

Warnaar’s participation in the school’s visual arts program allows him to expand and build upon his interests in painting and drawing. He was even able to take figure drawing classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Yet the West Ridge resident is also taking IB physics and IB English classes at Senn.

“When I graduate, I will get a Senn Arts Visual Arts diploma, meaning I graduated from the visual arts program, and I will get an IB physics and IB English certificate,” Warnaar said. “These can be used for credit when I go to college. The Art Institute takes them even if they aren’t art related. The idea of IB is it is internationally (credited), so that credit transfers anywhere.”

Beck said enrollment this year is up above expected projections and the school gained more funding and more staffing positions. The number of student misconduct reports in the first five-week mark from last year compared to number of student misconduct reports in the first five-week mark this year have been cut roughly in half. She attributed the decrease to ways in which faculty members communicate with students.

“We are approaching students from a place of growth and a positive mindset in that they are teenagers having a voice and there’s a reason they are doing certain things,” Beck said. This helps reduce suspensions or expulsions.

Senn has made huge progress academically over the years. The differences right now, she said, are just cultural and have to do with supporting the student voice and maintaining academic growth.

“The curriculum is the same, we still have a strong IB wall-to-wall (IB World School), we still have a great focus on what we are doing (in) the classroom,” Beck said. “All of those things are the same, and they are only going to get stronger because the foundation is there. So I’m confident in the teachers, I’m confident in who the students are, in the curriculum we are using, and the few tweaks we are making are just to be more transparent.”

Susan Bertocchi, whose children are in Senn’s Fine and Performing Arts Magnet Program, is a parent representative on the school’s Local School Council that is responsible for approving how school funds and resources are allocated; developing and monitoring the annual School Improvement Plan; and evaluating and selecting the school’s principal.

She said Beck has a very open, respectful approach to learning about what needs to be changed at the school.

“It’s an exciting time to be at (Senn),” Bertocchi said. “Mary and all the people who are leading the school have all sorts of new ideas. We are seeing the things that are already great, get greater, and seeing new thinking and new ideas come to life.”

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