Taft principal making good on promise to usher in new era

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Taft High School Principal Mark Grishaber. | Heather Cherone/For the Sun-Times

When Mark Grishaber took the principal’s job at Taft High School in the Norwood Park neighborhood in June 2014 he made no little promises.

Grishaber vowed to improve Taft’s less-than-stellar reputation and make it the first choice for Far Northwest Side students and their parents, who often scrambled for spots in selective-enrollment high schools or shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for Catholic schools.

Four years later, the Taft High School Local School Council offered Grishaber another four-year contract, rating his work excellent and crediting him with remaking Taft into one of the city’s top high schools.

“I feel so lucky to know I’ll be at my dream school for another four years,” said Grishaber, who earned $146,000 in 2017. “I have the best team in the city. They have helped make Taft a destination school.”

Grishaber, who was diagnosed with leukemia in November 2016, has been in remission for nearly a year.

“It was a tough time,” Grishaber said. “But my health is good.”

Local School Council Community Representative Goran Davidovac said the difference at Taft thanks to Grishaber is “night and day.”

“He changed the culture,” Davidovac said, praising Grishaber for being transparent and open with the council about challenges. “He has tackled the issues head-on.”

Under Grishaber’s leadership, Taft achieved a Level 1 quality rating from Chicago Public Schools — the second-highest CPS academic ranking — for the first time. It has maintained that ranking for three years.

Grishaber also put Taft in the spotlight by creating a series of humorous videos that encouraged students to get to class on time in the morning, including one where he pretended to do BMX bike tricks.

In addition, Grishaber took out the metal detectors at the school’s front entrance — loathed by many students for making them late for class and making the school feel like an institution, rather than a place of learning.

Grishaber also lifted the school’s ban on cellphone use during lunchtime and ended the school’s dress code as part of a strategy to make students take responsibility for their academic performance and become part of the school community.

“We told the students their educational success is on them,” Grishaber said. “It has worked to change the culture.”

Grishaber also worked to expand the number of after-school clubs and sports to connect students to the school, and focus their attention outside of class.

Bea McDonough, whose daughter is a junior at Taft, said Grishaber “blew life into the school and put a charge into the teachers.”

“He knows how to talk to kids and earn their respect,” McDonough said. “We really needed that as a community.”

Grishaber’s illness prompted a tremendous outpouring of sadness from the community that was a testament to his achievement during his first four-year term as principal, McDonough said.

“I’m so happy he’s back and will stay at Taft,” McDonough said.

Grishaber said there are plenty of challenges to face and work to do at Taft.

“I have my vision,” Grishaber said.

Taft High School Principal Mark Grishaber, center, and some of his students. | Heather Cherone/For the Sun-Ties

Taft High School Principal Mark Grishaber, center, and some of his students. | Heather Cherone/For the Sun-Ties

Taft remains the most crowded high school in Chicago, with 3,372 students studying in a building designed for 2,184 pupils during the 2017-18 school year, according to data released by Chicago Public Schools officials.

Davidovac said he and other Taft officials are awaiting a decision by school district officials about whether new $70 million school planned for the Dunning neighborhood will be a satellite campus of Taft, housing freshmen as well as the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade academic center.

The school was slated to be a middle grades school in an effort to relieve overcrowding at elementary schools throughout the Far Northwest Side.

A group of Dunning parents have been lobbying school district officials to make the high school independent, saying Dunning needs its own high school.

“We want a long-term solution, not a Band-Aid,” Davidovac said. “Overcrowding is a huge issue.”

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