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Ames residents ‘relying on the democratic process’ in saving school

The Ames community’s canvassing efforts will be tested Tuesday as voters head to the polls for the primary election.

On the ballot, voters from the 1st, 26th and 35th wards will find a referendum asking whether Ames should remain a neighborhood school.

The referendum is the community’s last effort to convince Chicago Public Schools that the military conversion is not wanted. 

“We are relying on the democratic process,” said Leticia Barrera, education organizer at Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “We have provided surveys from Ames parents on two separate occasions with results showing parents’ disapproval. The referendum is really a wake-up a call for the board.”

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association, also known as LSNA, along with Elev8 and other community organizations have been fighting since rumors of Ames’ conversion surfaced two years ago. The organizations, along with parents and students, have pleaded with CPS, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) to reconsider.

However, history doesn’t bode well for the Ames community.

Background on referendum
Nearly 10 years ago, a ballot referendum emerged from community opposition against the proposed Rickover Naval Academy. The referendum sought a one-year moratorium to allow the surrounding community an opportunity to weigh in on the placement of the CPS military academy. 

Despite more than 69 percent of the community supporting the referendum, the Board of Education, and then-Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th), went ahead with their plans, against the community’s wishes, and opened Rickover Naval Academy in 2005.

The Rev. Craig B. Mousin, Edgewater resident and father of three CPS students at the time, was among the community members involved in seeking the conversion delay.

“Because CPS had overruled the Local School Council in planning [Rickover Naval Academy]," Mousin said, "we were asking them to hold off for a year until the community could weigh in on the conversation."

Now, less than 10 years since the Edgewater community fought against converting a neighborhood school into a military academy, the Logan Square community finds itself in the same territory.

The déjà vu is striking.

In both instances, two aldermen and CPS were unwilling to acknowledge the community’s wishes and keep the integrity of the neighborhood school. But as it stands, the stage has been set for a summer conversion of Ames.

In doing so, $7 million in TIF money will be spent to repurpose Ames and relocate the Marine Math and Science Academy on the Northwest Side into the Ames facility.

Shrinking budgets 
The contentious use of funds to re-establish the sixth military academy, an already functioning school, is raising questions, especially with the growing number of charter schools and the closing of 49 neighborhood schools in 2013. 

Naturally, parents, students and community members are starting to wonder: What happened to the good neighborhood schools? 

Joanna Brown, education director of LSNA, points to the shrinking budgets of these neighborhood schools as part of the problem.

“It’s clear resources are going more in a direction of charter and military schools,” Brown said. “Neighborhood schools funds have been cut, budgets are being squeezed. These schools are full, but they don’t have adequate resources. Ames closure will have a tremendous impact on Kelvyn Park High School.”

CPS is planning on opening the high school to seventh- and eighth-grade students to accommodate those who are not selected or opt out of the military academy.

New face of CPS 
CPS cites the impending conversion to be a byproduct of low enrollment with just more than 600 students. According to LSNA, Elev8 and other Logan Square organizations, the justification of closing down the community schools due to low enrollment seems odd compared with the enrollment numbers of other military academies.

CPS’s most recently opened Air Force Academy High School has 355 students. Last spring it graduated 83 students, 6 of whom went into the military.

Nevertheless, there has been a recent push toward charter and military academies, 53 charter schools and six military academies currently make up part of the system.

Lt. Col. Mark Benz, senior aerospace studies instructor at the Air Force Academy, says, “The mission is to provide leadership, citizenship and confidence that you wouldn’t ordinarily get from other schools.”. 

DePaul University Prof. Kenneth Saltman and other critics of military academies say military school models have no place in the public education sphere.

“Some will argue that these academies give an alternative model and choice for parents,” said Saltman, who teaches educational policy studies and research. “They sell a virtue of instilling discipline in students. I think these justifications are suspect, the placement of these schools are in predominantly low-income, African-American and Latino communities.” 

“If these were proposed in rich, wealthy communities, it would never fly. You would never see Emanuel, Dick Durbin or the alderman send their kids there because they don’t believe in [the military academies]," Saltman said.

According to Air Force Academy Counselor Ashley Spencer the academy located on the Southwest Side has a demographic breakdown of 41.7 percent African-American, 43.7 percent Latino, 9.9 percent white and 3.4 percent Asian.

CPS officials did not respond to questions regarding neighborhood placements of these military academies or budget cuts to Kelvyn Park High School.

Selective Enrollment
Another troubling aspect of the conversion to Logan Square parents and community supporters is the selective enrollment into the Marine Math and Science Academy. Although Maldonado, Emanuel and CPS have assured Ames will continue to be an option for Ames students, according to LSNA, only 200 spaces have been allocated at the Marine Math and Science Academy for the 600 students currently enrolled at Ames.

Brown, of LSNA, said, “Many families are going to have to look for other schools that aren’t in the general vicinity. 

“Parents are upset that they won’t be able to walk their kids to schools,” Brown said. “Many don’t have the means of transportation to get their children to another part of town. We are trying to protect the community environment. A school is better off when it’s connected with a community.”

The pain of losing Ames to military conversion is deep-rooted in the way it was conceived. Ames has symbolic importance. It was a product of the Logan Square community’s effort in pressuring Mayor Richard M. Daley to build the school and ease overcrowding in surrounding neighborhoods in 1998.

Ames supporters say the manner in which the discussions for the conversion took place is troubling, especially since the community was instrumental in having the school built.

“The parents and Ames community were not invited to the conversion discussions,” Brown said. “We started hearing talk about it so I submitted a FOIA, Freedom of Information Act [requests] regarding a meeting and it took CPS eight months to respond.”

The school was earned through community effort, and despite the work to keep it a neighborhood school, according to Maria Trejo, Elev8 director, CPS has made its decision without acknowledging the community’s wishes or speaking to the students for whom it serves. 

“If they proceed,” said Barrera, who assists with “Save Ames” canvassing efforts for LSNA. “It will demonstrate that democracy is not a part of the agenda. If they fail to acknowledge the community request, it will be another example that they can do this with any other school.

“They will say clearly that it doesn’t matter what the community is doing, what they are saying or what they want.”

Keywords: Ames, Election, Marine, Marine Math and Science, parents, Rahm, referendum

Posted in Parent Engagement, Education, LSNA en la Prensa