Just before Senn High School's bell rings for the first class of the day, principal Susan Lofton patrols the sidewalk outside the Thorndale "L" station.
Even though class is starting two blocks away, Lofton waits for the next train. She knows it's holding at least a few straggling students.
"No Fritos, no Flamin' Hots," Lofton says as the students arrive, ushering them away from the station's concession stand. "Keep walking."
As a student leaves the station, she says, "Hurry up, you're cutting it close."
Lofton's stern presence — exemplified by her Hillary Clinton-esque blonde hair and thick, black sunglasses — has a lot to do with her school's big turnaround.
Since she was hired in 2010, Senn High School's ranking has moved from among the bottom third of Chicago Public Schools to the top tier. Senn earned a level 1 (excellent) rating from Chicago Public Schools this year after being on academic probation 13 of the last 17 school years, according to district data.
The school's rating, calculated with a variety of metrics including test scores, attendance rates and drop-out rates since 2009, shows steady improvement. The school has expanded its rigorous International Baccalaureate program, in which all new students now are enrolled, and has added science and computer labs, a dance studio and renovated its auditorium.
But while measures of academic success at the school still haven't reached district averages, officials and community members say it's the culture at the school that has seen the biggest change.
In 2009, 21.4 percent of enrolled students were missing from Senn on any given day. Last year, just 8.3 percent missed class.
'Catalyst for change'
Lofton said that before she took the helm, students would hang around the "L" station during school hours, "dealing drugs and everything else, so people [couldn't] get to public transportation without having to wade through 100 kids."
Not only did it keep children out of the classroom, it was a stain on the community, which had lost hope in its neighborhood school, she said. Just 40 percent of the students from the school, which accepted students from across the city, were actually from the neighborhood.
But this year, with all the improvements, more than 60 percent of students live nearby.
"We knew we needed to get that train station patched up," Lofton said.
But an incident that happened inside the school was a true "catalyst for change," Lofton said.
"Within the first week I was here, a student just around 10:30 a.m. walked in — with a big ol' bag of McDonalds."
Lofton confronted the student, who screamed back.
Surprisingly, "no one responded that it was out of the ordinary" for a student to behave that way at the school, Lofton said.
But Lofton made it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated. The student's parents were brought in, and the girl ended up transferring to Truman College to get her high school diploma.
Since then, disciplinary referrals have decreased 70 percent, Lofton said.