Parents lose fight to keep military school out

Mayor announces expansion of seats at CPS military academies, touts more choices for high school students.

October 30, 2013

WBEZ/Linda Lutton
Ames Middle School parents and students protested Tuesday outside Marine Math and Science military academy, just before the mayor announced plans to convert Ames from a neighborhood middle school to the new home of Marine.

A group of Chicago parents lost a year-and-half battle to keep the city from converting their neighborhood middle school to a military academy.

At a press conference Tuesday at Marine Math and Science Academy on the West Side, Mayor Rahm Emanuel confirmed that Ames Middle School, in the Logan Square neighborhood, will become a military academy.

The mayor’s office originally said Marine would be re-located to the Ames building, but school officials now say Marine is not moving.

Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll said Wednesday that Ames will be “another option for students who wish to pursue attendance at a military school.... And, it's likely that many students who live in the Ames community, but attend Marine, may choose to enroll there.”

The Ames principal is scheduled to stay on, one source told WBEZ. Ames school will be affiliated with the United States Marine Corps, as Marine Math and Science Academy is. And current Marine Math and Science students who want to transfer to Ames will not have to go through the normal application process, the source said.

About two-dozen Ames parents and students protested outside Tuesday’s news conference. They said Ames is a school with deep roots in the neighborhood, with before- and after-school activities, a clinic and a lauded parent-mentor program--all built with community sweat.

The parents long suspected plans to convert Ames to a military academy were in the works—even before 26th Ward Alderman Roberto Maldonado publicly proposed the idea—but they were assured by school district officials that nothing would happen without their consultation.

The conversion of Ames to a military school will increase the number of military academy seats in Chicago Public Schools by 50 percent, according to the city.

The city has six military academies, more than any other school district in the country. The mayor touted higher-than-normal graduation and college-going rates for the schools in the announcement.

“They are setting the standard for where we want the whole system to move,” said Emanuel, who outlined the expansion of military academy seats as part of his strategy to give Chicago parents and students more choice.  

The city says there is high demand for its military schools—six applications for every seat— though the current way high school applications work in Chicago tends to exaggerate demand for schools, with many students applying to multiple schools, including schools they don’t actually plan to attend.

District officials said moving Marine to the Ames building was pushed by the alderman. A press release from the mayor’s staff pointed out that Ames is under-enrolled and received the lowest of three grades Chicago gives to schools.

“(That) does heighten the sensitivity to making some change to try to improve that—we’d like to have all our schools be Level 1 schools,” said School Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz, who took questions about the decision. Ruiz said the alderman held public forums and conducted a “professional poll” that showed significant community support for the military academy. He said there are times when communities are divided over what they want.  

But Ames parents said they’d been lied to, citing a promise made at a December 2012 school board meeting.

There are no plans to change Ames Middle School into a military school,” School Board President David Vitale said then, telling Ames parents it wasn’t necessary for them to come to every school board meeting to plead for their school’s survival. “Sometimes you have to stop listening to all the rumors in the neighborhood,” Vitale told parents. “And if you want, you can give me a phone call to find out if anything’s changed.”

CPS officials say Vitale said publicly that plans could be in the works at a subsequent school board meeting, in July. 

At that July meeting, Ald. Maldonado presented a poll of 300 nearby-Ames residents which showed that 72 percent supported a military academy at Ames. “The board looks forward to supporting you and your community with your objective,” Vitale said then. “We look forward to working with you and making this happen.”

Ames parent Emma Segura was among those protesting the decision Tuesday. She said she has nothing against military schools in principle, but wondered about neighborhood students who can’t get into the school—and lamented the loss of a bilingual program.

Segura said her son and nephew are both 7th graders at Ames, but worries that keeping the family together might not be possible when the military academy’s more restrictive admissions policies take effect.

“If one (child) stays here and then I have to send the other one (elsewhere), it’s gonna be hard for me to cut myself in half and drive one here and the other one there. And for most parents that’s what’s gonna happen. If the kids don’t get accepted to this school, where else can they take them?” Segura wondered.

Marine Math and Science’s website indicates that students applying for 9th grade need to attend an information session, meet minimum test-score requirements, have an “A/B average,” good conduct and be “compliant with uniform policy.”

The district said all current Ames students will be able to continue at the school, whether or not they meet Marine’s admissions standards. 

The Ames building--constructed in 1993--will get $7 million in improvements before the military academy moves in. The money, from the city’s Tax Increment Finance funds, will pay for new science and computer labs and classrooms for music and art.

Becky Vevea contributed reporting.

Linda Lutton and Becky Vevea cover education for WBEZ. Follow them @WBEZeducation.