By Lauren DeJulio Bell
For a lot of us in Chicago, back-to-school time means stocking up on school supplies, getting back into routines, and final jaunts to the beach. It can also mean practical bedtimes, seeing school friends, and wondering who our kiddos’ teachers will be.
For Andrea Jacobs and Beneen Prendiville, September 5 brought extra excitement and anticipation: their daughters started high school! Andrea’s daughter, Haley, is a freshman at Lake View. Beneen’s daughter, Yasmine, is a freshman at Amundsen. We sat down with Andrea and Beneen on a recent September morning to find out how everything is going so far and what tips they might have for future Wildcat and Viking parents.
Becoming a Wildcat and a Viking
Since families in Chicago have the opportunity to choose which high schools their children attend, we asked Andrea and Beneen how their daughters came to choose their neighborhood schools, Lake View and Amundsen. Both moms said they immersed themselves and their children in the process early on to ensure the best decisions for their family.
In Andrea’s case, she and her husband spent a tremendous amount of time investigating the school-choice process. It was important to them to be a part of their community and make a difference—in schools, and outside of it.
“In sixth grade, we started to get involved in Lake View. We’re here, we have two kids, and it’s our neighborhood,” Andrea shared. Andrea’s husband, Larry Jacobs, heads up Lake View High School Partners, which is in the process of changing its name to Friends of Lake View. During Haley’s seventh grade year, Andrea explained, “We worked with groups from different elementary schools in the evening…to do community outreach. We had several small group sessions at Lake View; teachers would take the kids to do experiments and they would have an ice cream social afterwards, and the parents would meet.” Andrea found that this really helped show parents what the school is all about while simultaneously allowing kids to experience the school and its staff members firsthand.
According to Andrea, Haley considered the investment she and her parents made in Lake View when engaging in high school research activities at Nettelhorst. Haley brought up Lake View in class discussion as a viable choice—not just for herself, but also for her peers. Haley, Andrea explained, realized from her research and experiences with Lake View that the school “had things that fit her interests and picture of high school best.” And when Lake View built its new maker space last year, that sealed the deal.
Beneen’s daughter, Yasmine, made a similar choice about Amundsen. Beneen’s experience as a former Chicago Public Schools teacher shaped her own views about neighborhood schools, as well as her children’s. “I knew that Chicago had great neighborhood gems, and that families had a lot to do with it.”
Beneen’s daughters attended Coonley Elementary and began taking swim lessons at Amundsen. She explained, “I really believe in the neighborhood school concept. So I enrolled the girls in swimming lessons through Winnemac Park, because I knew it was hosted at Amundsen.” The swim lessons gave Beneen and her daughters a chance to experience Amundsen firsthand, long before freshman year came around. “I was like, ‘I like this school, it feels good, it has good energy, the kids seem really nice,’ and I thought, ‘Alright, we’re Vikings.’ So I started telling the girls, ‘Yeah, you girls are Vikings, you’re Vikings, you’re Vikings.’ I really started getting them excited…this was their school, and giving them ownership at a young age.”
Beneen also joined the board of Friends of Amundsen to get more involved in the school and its community, and she is currently Friends of Amundsen president. Yasmine, an artist, began to get more excited about Amundsen as well. However, Yasmine felt pressured by others outside her family to attend a selective arts school, which was a challenging experience.
Beneen saw this, and made it a point to help her daughter navigate those challenges. “Seventh grade was a lot of discussions that focused on personal growth…and leadership, and being the first to do something, and sort of being that pioneer, you know?” Yasmine related to this idea, and reaffirmed her selection of Amundsen as the school that could best meet her needs.
Off to a Great Start
Now that the school year has begun, we wondered: how’s it going? How are Haley and Yasmine feeling as high school freshmen, and how do Andrea and Beneen feel as freshmen parents?
Haley is loving her time at Lake View—she’s already joined the Debate Team. And Andrea is also enjoying the experience: “The teachers get to know these kids…this is about how can we push your child and discover their interests?” Andrea appreciates that her daughter can take honors courses, music, and art in addition to core classes, and has the option to change her plans as her high school career progresses. She can figure out what she wants for herself without tremendous pressure to decide now, at the young age of 14.
Beneen agrees. “It’s going well. [Yasmine] did about a week and a half of Freshmen Connection over the summer, and she joined swim team about two weeks before school started. So, she was in the building and making friends, and that was a huge deal for her comfort level.”
The transition to high school, for any student, is exhausting and anxiety-ridden. It’s also exciting. And Andrea and Beneen notice.
“[Yasmine’s] happy,” Beneen shared. “She’s been to a football game already. She’s enjoying making new friends.” Beneen feels good about her daughter’s transition, in that it’s allowed her to feel a part of a larger community.
Haley’s immersed herself in Lake View’s school community, too. “In the freshmen orientation,” Andrea explained, “they really did get to know each other. I feel like both [Lake View and Amundsen], from what I understand, did a great job of facilitating just time for the kids to spend with each other and using upper classmen as mentors…so, I think the kids went in knowing people.”
Andrea added, “The fact that they are taking such good care of the freshmen, it is allowing them to make friends. So that’s making [Haley] very happy.”
What both moms agree about most is this: the sense of community, the bringing together of kids and parents and staff and community members, and the challenging educational atmosphere all make a significant difference. Students and families feel welcome, they know one another, and they embrace the neighborhood—in and outside of the school building. Both schools held back-to-school parent mixers in September, and at the Lake View event, Andrea was able to meet the parents of one of Haley’s new friends. She is pleased that the opportunity to connect with other parents is continuing into high school.
Andrea and Beneen also agreed on the importance of community outreach. Helping families understand how many options they have within the neighborhood schools is key, according to both moms. They like the idea of student “ambassadors” from the high schools who can help students and their parents learn more about the programs offered.
As Andrea pointed out, at Lake View, an Early College STEM School, "there are honors classes, there are AP classes, there are dual-credit classes." Amundsen has similarly diverse academic offerings, including International Baccalaureate and Career and Technical Education programs.
And it’s not just what’s going on inside the buildings, but outside of them. Beneen believes this helps build community, too, which is a large focus of Friends of Amundsen. “This year, I’m really excited that we are starting committees, and I am opening it up to anyone—parents, community members, business people…Right now, we have a Homecoming Committee that is on fire.” (Amundsen’s homecoming football game is Friday, October 13, 3:45pm, at Jorndt Stadium; Lake View’s is Wednesday, October 18, 4pm, at Lane Stadium.)
At Lake View, Andrea shared, they’re also on track to get the community even more involved.
As she meets younger elementary school families, they tell her, “How cool! I am so excited to see what’s going on. Thank you for what you’re doing. I’m excited for when my child gets to that stage.”
Andrea and Beneen agree that student happiness, school culture, parental involvement, and community building are what make Lake View and Amundsen true neighborhood gems. For them, and many others, this is just the beginning. It sounds like a success so far!
Cheers to a great school year…Go Vikings! Go Wildcats!
Lauren DeJulio Bell is a writer, educator, community activist and mother of four living in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. Lauren loves living near Winnemac Park and Amundsen High School.