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School & District Management

Military-Academy Plan Draws Fire in Chicago

By Catherine Gewertz — November 09, 2004 3 min read

Chicago school leaders’ plan to open a military academy inside a public high school has run into resistance from community members angry enough to try to form a protective human ring around the school.

Neighbors have been passing out fliers to spread the word about the proposed naval academy at Nicholas Senn High School. They packed a meeting last month in Senn’s auditorium, booing and turning their backs as district leaders tried to present information about the academy. They organized “Hands Around Senn,” clustering around the building on Oct. 28 in symbolic opposition to the proposal.

Some opponents are upset because they believe the district didn’t involve the mixed-income community of Edgewater, in the city’s northern section, before formulating the plan. Others fear program cutbacks at Senn next school year, when the military academy opens in one wing. Some see the move as an unwelcome recruitment tactic during wartime.

The academy is part of the city’s Renaissance 2010 plan, which calls for opening more than 100 small, themed schools in Chicago to increase choice for families. That plan, which offers outside groups the opportunity to manage most of the new schools, has been intensely criticized as lacking community input. (“Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools,” July 14, 2004.)

Peter Cunningham, a spokesman for the district, said Senn High was chosen for the academy because the building, with 1,700 students and space for 2,800, is underutilized, and only 60 percent of the eligible teenagers in its attendance area choose to enroll.

“We want to create another educational option that would make Senn attractive,” he said.

None of the programs at the school, including its prestigious International Baccalaureate program and its special courses for English-language learners from 70 countries, would be affected by adding the academy, he said.

Wartime Concerns

But skeptics doubt that assurance. Todd Pytel, the school’s math department chairman, believes that district leaders do not understand the way the school uses space for such programs as its junior academy, a small-school setting for freshmen.

“This is a proposal that would take resources away from kids who really need them, all for some political gain,” he said.

Social studies teacher Jesse Sharkey speaks at Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago.

“They’re just barging in taking the best side of our school,” said Karina Matias, 16, a sophomore.

Some resent introducing a military element into the school.

“You cannot tell me that when we are in the middle of a war, that this doesn’t play right into the military’s plan to draft kids without a draft,” said Laurie Hasbrook, a pacifist whose two young children attend a Roman Catholic school nearby.

Some activists perceive racial undertones in the district’s plan, noting that three-quarters of Senn’s students are members of racial or ethnic minority groups, and that half are from families of recent immigrants.

“It’s quite obvious that given its demographics, this plan can be construed as a direct assault upon a community of color,” said Jamiko Rose, an organizer with Organization of the NorthEast, a community group in the area.

Army Lt. Col. Rick W. Mills, the district’s director of military schools and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, said Senn High would provide a military academy in a part of the city where no such option exists. Across Chicago, 11,000 students participate in JROTC programs, representing the four main branches of the U.S. military.

The military academies are not recruiting tools, Col. Mills said. They focus on leadership, citizenship, character development, and community service.

Col. Mills noted that of the 900 cadets who graduated from the city’s military programs last spring, 71 percent went on to postsecondary education. Only 18 percent indicated they planned to pursue military service, he said, and of that group, only half sought active duty.

Sheli Lulkin, the president of a 15,000-member association of condominium owners along the nearby lakefront, sees the military academy as a needed improvement for Senn.

“A lot of people move out when their kids get bigger, because there is no good educational option,” she said. “Of all the people with kids in my [160-unit] building, the only ones who stayed, stayed because their kids got into private or selective-enrollment schools.”

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