The final phase in the search for a permanent principal at Oak Park and River Forest High School is over. All that’s left now is a final review process for the four finalists by Supt. Attila Weninger and his recommendation to the District 200 Board of Education, likely later this month.

The two remaining finalists met the community last week. Betheny Lyke, principal of Thornton Township High School in Harvey, and Elizabeth Bender, principal of University High School in University City, Missouri, took part in community forums last week. University City is an outer county of St. Louis. Both candidates met with parents and school officials at separate forums at the high school, 201 N. Scoville Ave.

The two other finalists, interim principal Don Vogel, and Nathaniel Rouse, an assistant principal at Highland Park High School met the community last month.

Questions dealing with student achievement, the achievement gap, discipline, and school climate at OPRF came up at each forum.

On questions of achievement, Lyke, Thornton’s principal since 2006, explained that her school has tried to target specific populations among the school’s roughly 2,500 students.

One example was the school’s freshmen academy. The school created the academy to catch students early as they entered to Thornton, but it wasn’t for underachieving students only,” said Lyke.

All 700 members of the freshmen class were enrolled in the academy, which involved such strategies as pulling the students into one area of the building for their core classes. The students, she said, were still acclimated to their other classes and activities in the building.

The school has seen benefits from the academy, she said, including increased grade point averages for freshmen from year to year.

“We have a large high school but we found that we were losing students,” she said. “For that student who doesn’t feel an invested interest in their school, how do we catch that kid?”

Black students at Thornton High School represent roughly 90 percent of the student population. Hispanics are the second largest group at 7 percent. Whites, Native American, Asian and multiracial students represent less than one percent of the study body.

Bender’s University High School, where she’s served as principal for the last 10 years, has about 1,100 students with more than 85 percent black, 11 percent white and less than 1 percent for other ethnic groups.

When she first arrived at the school, Bender said her school had an “access gap” as much as an achievement gap. The school’s Advanced Placement (AP) courses, for instance, were predominantly white. Bender said the school has worked to correct that.

“It’s important to find out who is where and are they on the same track for academic success,” she said.

Students, Bender soon learned, were being subjectively held back. One solution was insisting that teachers push students to move up when evaluating any student for AP or honors classes.

“We needed to find a kid’s talent and look at their potential,” she said.

The school also created its Lion’s Pride Program, a name taken from the school’s mascot, to improve AP instruction.

A partnership program with Washington University in St. Louis takes two dozen freshmen either not identified for honors, or who are in honors but struggling, and places them in a 6-week working group with a grad student to work on academic skills.


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