When Alan Mather of Lindblom High School won the first Golden Apple award for principals in early May – and praise from community and education experts alike was raining down on the school – it was easy to dismiss it as just another award for a school that picks from among the area’s top students. After all, how hard can it be to look good with an enrollment made up of smart, high-achieving students?

Mayor Emanuel awards Lindblom Principal Alan Mather with Stanley C. Golder Award / Photo credit: Patrick Pyszka / City of Chicago

But Lindblom’s recent success is a much more complicated tale. In many respects, it’s a comeback story that exemplifies how a school’s lagging fortunes can be revived if its administrators, staff and students rally behind the right academic mission while also striving to connect with the surrounding neighborhood and residents, especially parents.

Because of these efforts, Lindblom is the latest subject of the BGA’s Good Government Spotlight.

“This is a school in the middle of Englewood and the students are getting the quality of education that people of Glenbrook North (in suburban Northbrook) would expect,” says Dominic Belmonte, CEO and president of the Golden Apple Foundation, which, since 1985, has been training, supporting and awarding teachers. “That is not easily accomplished. It takes good teachers and outstanding leadership that works with the teachers.”

For decades, before many of the city’s “selective” public high schools existed, Lindblom was the gem of the South Side.

“If you were a smart kid from the North Side, you went to Lane Tech,” says John Roberson, an alumni. “If you were a smart kid from the South Side, you went to Lindblom.”

undefinedLindblom is located in West Englewood, one of the poorest, roughest neighborhoods in the city. All around it are blocks of vacant lots, old, weathered homes with broken windows and caved-in roofs. Some are boarded up. Others are still being lived in.

In 2003, the neighborhood’s troubles seemed to overwhelm the school. Lindblom could accommodate more than 1,300 students, but enrollment was only 525. Students and the staff were calling for the principal’s removal.

Some observers wondered whether Lindblom could ever get back to its glory days. Concerned about what was going on at the school, then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan moved all of Lindblom’s students to other schools and set about a massive renovation of the building. Even so, there was talk that the school might close for good.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan / www2.ed.gov

But Roberson and other alumni rallied and got city leaders on their side. In 2005, Duncan hired Mather, then an assistant principal at Northside College Prep, one of the city’s elite schools, to reopen Lindblom. Working at Lindblom would be much different than at Northside, which is on the far North Side and has attracted top students since it opened its doors in 1999.

Mather says he quickly learned that Lindblom had a much more strained relationship with the surrounding community. People who lived in the area thought of it as an island, where many of the local students weren’t welcome. Meanwhile, even the brightest students from nearby didn’t pick Lindblom as their first choice for high school.

“They wanted to get out of the neighborhood,” Mather says.

Since coming to the school, Mather has had to travel on two tracks. On one hand, he has built connections with local community leaders and with nearby schools. On Wednesdays, students have what is called a colloquium, in which they can take one of a number special classes, from sailing to the history of Chicago. One class offers math tutoring for students in the neighborhood’s other schools. Another class, with a non-profit called Build On, has students do community service projects in Englewood and elsewhere. This year, a group went to Haiti to build a school.

Seeing Lindblom students working in the community makes residents feel as though the school is again a part of the neighborhood.

At the same time, Mather has had to create an academic curriculum that will attract top students, and convince parents that their children won’t fall victim to the violence and social ills that are endemic in West Englewood. He’s also worked hard to attract and keep a young, energetic staff in the midst of growing tensions between the district administration and teachers.

Hoping to set Lindblom apart from other high schools, Mather brought Mandarin and Arabic language classes to the school. In 2008, the school opened up an academic center that enrolls seventh and eighth-graders looking for more of a challenge.

Mather marketed the school vigorously, making the case to parents that he can keep their children safe. He has safe passage workers at bus stops, and two shuttles run from the bus lines to the school, one from east to west and another from north to south. Lindblom is one of few high schools, including charters or regular public schools that offer any kind of bus service for students.

Junior Michelle Ramirez says her parents were nervous about her enrolling at Lindblom. But at an orientation, Mather’s comprehensive plan convinced them she would be OK. Though her parents regularly drove her to school, now, she says, “I drive myself.”

Mather is one of several savvy principals who regularly post comments on the popular blog www.cpsobsessed.com. The blog is a big draw for concerned parents who are desperate about getting their children into the city’s good public schools. For example, in October, Mather wrote that he would not be attending the school’s open house because he will be in Qatar “making connections with Qatari principals.”

In a later post Mather starts out: “Ni, Hao. To toot our own horn: Lindblom has the largest Mandarin program in the city and the largest non-heritage Arabic program in the United States.”

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that Lindblom has become more attractive for top students is in the numbers: The score needed for admission – based on the standardized test, the selective enrollment test and grades – are on average 30 points higher than they were in 2010. The city’s North Side selective schools are still the toughest to gain admission to with the average score to get into Payton in Lincoln Park being 886 out of 900.

But over the last four years, Lindblom has seen the second-highest increase – behind Lane Tech – in the scores of new students, shows a BGA analysis of the mean scores of admitted students. In 2010, the average score offered a seat at Lindblom was 728 and for next year’s freshmen class it was 758.

Lindblom is also becoming more diverse. Once all black, a quarter of Lindblom’s students are now Latino, shows CPS enrollment data. While only 46 white and Asian students attend the school, that number is double what it was only four years ago.

Once admitted, students are making strong academic gains. Lindblom is the only selective high school with higher-than-average increases on standardized test scores, though scores as a whole still lag behind the North Side selective schools.

Student Raven Nash says that Lindblom was not her first choice. She had dreams of going to one of the North Side selective schools. But when she was offered a spot at Lindblom, she jumped at it, sensing it was better than her neighborhood school.

A senior now, Raven marvels at all she has accomplished. The biggest thing is that she decided she loves Chinese and has already traveled twice to China to study. “I would have never done that if I would have stayed at Hyde Park High School,” she says.

Beyond statistics, teachers and students say the energy at the school makes it different. To raise funds this spring, the staff played against students in a variety of sports, such as soccer, Frisbee and swimming. Mather says he and his staff do it not just to bring in money but to give students the chance to see the teachers and administrators less as authority figures and more as people who care about them.

Another way Mather tries to get students to see him in a different light: Every Halloween he rides his unicycle and throws candy to the students. He also greets them at the door every day, even on rainy or bitter cold days.

This collegial feeling translates into classes and into how the staff feels about the school.

One afternoon this spring, history teacher Zach Linderman fires off questions as he makes his way through a PowerPoint on American expansionism. The juniors make connections between earlier periods in history. Linderman allows students to have drinks and snacks on their desk, and jokes with them, making it feel more like a college seminar than a high school class in the inner city.

Next door, Kari Mueller’s seventh-graders are reading Romeo and Juliet. Mueller says she came from a neighborhood high school to Lindblom to work with Mather because she heard he was a good principal. She likes that Mather relays his vision to the staff, but constantly asks for feedback through surveys and open discussion.

“We have a voice in everything,” she says. “It is a special place.”

BGA freelancer Sarah Karp is deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago, a publication that covers the Chicago public school system.

Photo credit: Lindblom High School / webapps.cityofchicago.org