The Warrior

LTAC’s first class prepares to say goodbye to Lane

Then and Now: Photo of Max Mitchell, left, from the September 2011 edition of The Warrior, when he roamed the halls as a member of the first class of LTAC. Now Mitchell roams those same halls as a senior.

Then and Now: Photo of Max Mitchell, left, from the September 2011 edition of The Warrior, when he roamed the halls as a member of the first class of LTAC. Now Mitchell roams those same halls as a senior.

Photo by James Coyne

Photo by James Coyne

Then and Now: Photo of Max Mitchell, left, from the September 2011 edition of The Warrior, when he roamed the halls as a member of the first class of LTAC. Now Mitchell roams those same halls as a senior.

By Lara Sonuga

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  Six years ago, wide-eyed preteens with backpacks bigger than themselves climbed the stairs to the fourth floor of Lane for the first time, filled with apprehension and excitement. The thought of being at a massive school, having new teachers, and interacting with unfamiliar peers was enough to bring butterflies to their stomachs.

Now, these students are 18 years old. Spending six years at Lane has made the building feel like a home to them — and they are only days away from moving out.

Founded in 2011, the Lane Tech Academic Center, known informally as LTAC, included approximately 90 seventh graders from almost every neighborhood of Chicago, coming together on Lane’s 4th floor to receive an accelerated education.

At the time, few realized the impact that a scrawny group of seventh graders would have on such a massive and esteemed institution.

“They were learning everything as we were too, and we were learning as we went along,” Ms. Jencius, LTAC math teacher, said. The goal, she said, was to “keep the expectations of Lane Tech College Prep, but tailor them to middle schoolers.”

LTAC students had to deal with the universal difficulty of early adolescence while starting a high school education at the age of twelve.

“Middle school is a tough time, you know, developmentally,” said Ms. Ulmer, LTAC English teacher. “Their brains are growing at such a rapid pace, and it’s such an important growth period for just being a human being, but then being in this environment [makes it even more difficult].”

LTAC students had little time to adjust to a high school setting. The teachers tried their best to make the transition as easy as possible for the incoming seventh graders.

“I think we recognized that it was such a dramatic transition from elementary school into Lane, and we had to be supportive for that,” Paulson said. “As seventh grade teachers, we were a little more aware of how much they are going through as they transition to Lane.”

Among many other things, incoming seventh graders had to adjust to the size of the school.

“I was very shy when I first came here, so having those two years where it was kind of like high school, but still within 110 or so students, helped me make the transition from 300 people in a school to 4000,” Aubrey Matlak, Div. 863, said. “It introduced me to the concept of high school without thrusting me into the craziness of it.”

Despite the difficulties that came with starting at a new school, there were benefits to enrolling at Lane at such a young age. Abigail Henkin, former LTAC student and this year’s salutatorian, was one of many who saw the challenges as an opportunity for personal growth.

“LTAC forced me out of my comfort zone and forced me to find a place in a world where a lot of people were older than me,” Henkin, Div. 750, said. “It taught me to trust in myself, ask for help when I need it and overcome my fear of failure. I learned to prioritize what was really important to me and go after what I wanted, even if it meant appearing less impressive.”

Although participation in LTAC was advantageous to most, it was not a good fit for some students. Anna Klevatt, who is currently a senior at Jones College Prep, was a part of LTAC’s first class for approximately one month before making the decision to transfer back to her elementary school.

“Ultimately, I knew 7th grade was a very important year for selective enrollment schools, and I did not see myself attending Lane Tech for high school,” Klevatt said. “If I would have stayed, I don’t think I could have gotten grades high enough to have been accepted into other selective enrollment high schools, since the LTAC program was academically challenging for me off the bat.

“To be honest, I’m glad I left,” she added. “I’m about to graduate from Jones College Prep now, and it was an incredibly good fit for me.”

Having a proper integration into high school has been key for LTAC students.

“I was already used to the size of Lane and had a nearly seamless transition from eighth grade to freshman year,” Max Mitchell, Div. 752, said. “Being in LTAC has also allowed me to take nearly all electives my junior and senior year, so I’ve been able to take classes that I otherwise never would have been able to fit into my schedule.”

Although the majority of LTAC students graduate after their sixth year, some make the choice to head to college earlier. Bekah Latham, a student in the first class of LTAC, graduated a year earlier than her peers, and has finished her freshman year at Colorado College.

“To me, it made sense to take the opportunity,” Latham said. “My brother had done the Academic Center at Whitney Young, and always said he wished he had graduated early, but didn’t quite feel he was ready at the time. I felt like I was ready.”

Latham noted that some members of Lane’s staff and administration “weren’t fond of the idea” of graduating early. Adults attempted to convince her that graduating early would be hard, that she was not prepared for it, and that college would put too much pressure on her to participate in risky activities.

“I don’t think they understood what high school was like,” she said. “I think we were more at risk for all of those things coming into LTAC than we were coming into college.

“It was kind of a quick decision, but once I committed to it, everything was all about college, starting sophomore year,” Latham said. “Retrospectively, I think I actually could have taken senior year to really get involved in the school in ways I hadn’t previously, but I do not regret my decision in the slightest. Graduating early felt like a fitting way to end a unique high school experience.”

Latham ultimately felt her decision benefitted her in the long run .

“I think a change of pace was extremely helpful in helping me finally use what I learned in LTAC and high school,” she said. “In college, I have felt really well prepared academically and socially, and I think pushing myself to graduate early is a huge part of that.”

“I know we’re biased, but I think the LTAC classes, particularly that first class, really set the standard for Lane Tech,” Ulmer said. “I think it ups the ante for achievement and character. They really brought something special to Lane Tech.”

— Ms.

Developing social skills is typically seen as imperative for success in college, and for life in general. Though it may have been challenging at the time, the social aspect of being in LTAC helped shape the students’ identities and friendships that they will keep for years to come.   

“I developed some strong friendships since everyone had around three classes a day together — I think in 7th grade I pretty much knew everyone’s schedules — which was a really great way to get introduced into the larger Lane community,” Henkin said. “I’m still friends with many of the people who stayed at Lane, although we needed to keep seeing each other in classes for those friendships to mature. But I still have a connection even with the people I’m no longer close with since we have so many shared memories and in-jokes; it’s easy to start a conversation based on our common background.”

It is not uncommon for LTAC students to feel a separation from the other high school students after reaching ninth grade.

Most of my classes were with upperclassman as opposed to the kids in my grade,” Mitchell said. “This made it nearly impossible to make new non-LTAC friends with kids my age until junior year when I started having more classes with kids in my grade.”

At times, especially before the rest of the school was used to having us around, it could be really isolating,” Latham said. “On one hand, that made us feel really close as a class, but it was hard at first being surrounded by a student body that wasn’t really welcoming — and was 4,000 people large at that. I don’t blame the high school students for feeling that way towards us, but it was an intimidating environment at the beginning, and so I tended to stay within our little group.”

The size of the Lane population is easily intimidating — especially to LTAC students — and the 33-acre campus provides endless opportunities to get lost. Paulson said it is “tough being a small program in a very big school,” and Ulmer thinks that the middle school students are “often times overlooked.” The incoming seventh graders needed a bit of help navigating their new environment, and thus, an LTAC-specific mentoring program was born. ACES mentors include a selective group of older students that were chosen to guide the new seventh graders through their Academic Center career.

“I feel like that’s a wonderful thing that came out of LTAC, just so that they have a buddy who’s older,” Jencius said. “We now have six classes of LTAC, so a lot of the time it’s a former LTAC student; they can talk to the seventh graders and say, ‘we went through this too,’ ‘this is what you’re gonna feel, it’s OK,’ ‘it gets better.’”

However, the first class of LTAC didn’t have any mentors that had been through the Academic Center, and they had to rely on parents and teachers for guidance. Navigating the building, completing rigorous courses, and learning about Lane traditions — such as Spirit Day and decorating lockers — were just a few things that the incoming seventh graders had to adapt to.

“One of my first memories of LTAC was coming into school on my birthday, which was relatively early in the year, and finding out my mom, with the help of a friend, had decorated my locker,” Latham said. “Her motives were so sweet, she didn’t want to take a chance the tradition didn’t happen for me. But I also remember being like ‘Oh god, is this how my high school career is going to go? My mom coming into school and decorating my locker and then sticking around for me to see it?’ It was pretty funny, and I guess it did set the precedent for how my years at Lane would go—mildly embarrassing, kind of weird, but pretty great.”

Additionally, administration implemented an optional course called LTAC Academy three years ago, which has since been made mandatory. The class is a study hall for three of the five days of the week, and the other two days include lessons that follow a social-emotional curriculum, according to Paulson and Ulmer.

In addition to seeing the program evolve, the teachers have witnessed the personal growth of the students in the first class. The small, timid seventh graders they once taught have undergone a transformation into mature adults that are currently preparing to head off to college.

It was very weird when they were freshmen and they started making friends that were not from LTAC,” Jencius said. “Then, sophomore year they got their driver’s licenses, which is crazy to think of them driving, and then junior year, they’re taking all these tests to get ready for college, and then senior year you’re seeing all of them and they’re telling you what they’re going to do next year, and it’s like… We’ve known you since you were twelve, this is just crazy.”

— Ms. Jencius

  LTAC provided a unique environment for personal growth, and the first class’s impending graduation has allowed many of the students and teachers to reflect on the ways that they’ve changed.

Working with LTAC has given me amazing perspective and some of my best friends,” said Ms. Lain, former coordinator of LTAC. “I left LTAC with different ideas about what’s important in life.”

“[LTAC] definitely made me mature more quickly than I otherwise would have,” Mitchell said. “When you enter a high school as a 12 year old, you learn about a lot of stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have known about for a few more years, and you have to mature pretty quickly in order to deal with that.”

I came into LTAC knowing that I loved theater and creative writing, and that never really changed,” Henkin said. “LTAC did allow me to pursue those interests in a way that would have been much more difficult otherwise. As I said, I had a lot of time to take drama and creative writing classes and develop those skills. I was also able to audition for Lane productions earlier and get my foot in with our wonderful Lane theater community. My dream right now is to be a screenwriter and I feel like the opportunities of classes and extracurriculars from LTAC has prepared me well to keep going for that in college.”

Former LTAC students were able to look back on their experiences and offer advice to their 11-year-old selves.

I would tell myself to not be so afraid to create my own opportunities, whether that’s starting my own club or auditioning more outside of Lane,” Henkin said. I stuck pretty close to Lane, and sometimes I wonder if I should have branched out more on my own. I would also tell myself to take AP Bio this year, since it would’ve gotten me out of a college core requirement. Overall though, I’m really grateful for the choices I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had through LTAC and Lane in general.”

Right now I would tell little seventh grade me to start working out sooner, go out of my way to make friends with new freshmen come freshman year, ​and just try to have a good time,” Mitchell said. “High school isn’t just about the grades.”

“First and foremost, I would tell myself not to spend so much time worrying,” Latham said. “Nothing was going to be as catastrophic as I made it out to be. I would also tell myself to pay more attention to how my friendships made me feel. To trust myself more, and others a bit less. It’s possible to both focus on yourself, and still be respectful and put others first. You should never rely on other people’s opinions to shape how you look at yourself. Spend time with family, and with friends that make you feel good. Join a club, and do whatever makes you happy.”

The first class has shared their wisdom with students who are currently in LTAC.

“We had a group of seniors speak to the current eighth graders at the beginning of the year, and all of the LTAC teachers watching were in tears,” Paulson said. “We were so proud.”

 “I thought I would never ever teach middle school, but this program is so different,” Jencius said. “The kids are wonderful. I don’t know that I could ever teach middle school anywhere else.”

Mrs. Anderson, former principal and original coordinator of LTAC, is one of several members of the staff that was brought to a higher position, causing her to leave the program only a year after it was founded.

“​I will always have a special place in my heart for the first class of LTAC,” said Anderson. “There were good times, there were bad times, we laughed and cried… but mostly laughed.”

“I hope to see Lane continue to embrace the idea that LTACers are not just another class of high school students — these are an exceptional bunch of people in so many ways,” Lain said. “I’d love to see LTACers continue to get opportunities to contribute and give back to Lane in ways that are special for them.”

“I know we’re biased, but I think the LTAC classes, particularly that first class, really set the standard for Lane Tech,” Ulmer said. “I think it ups the ante for achievement and character. They really brought something special to Lane Tech.”

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LTAC’s first class prepares to say goodbye to Lane