Chicago high school students boot the Navy out
It was a presentation turned into a protest with the trappings of a pep
rally. Over 500 students, parents, teachers, and community members packed
into the auditorium of Senn High School on Tuesday night for what was
billed as a "Community Forum" about Chicago Public Schools's plan to turn
part of Senn into a naval academy run by the Junior ROTC. But the CPS and
JROTC presenters weren't able to give their presentation over the chants of
"WE SAY NO!", nor were they able to show their video to the audience's
turned backs. School and community organizers transformed the event into a
real town hall meeting with an open mic, but the CPS and ROTC officials did
not stick around to hear what the community had to say.
The evening began at 6 pm, when Save Senn Coalition members gathered
outside the high school , located at 5900 N. Glenwood Ave., to greet people
as they came and distribute informational pamphlets about Senn High School
and the fight to keep it free of a naval academy. Other members, many of
them students, circulated with a petition in support of the Save Senn
Coalition goals. Area peace activists handed out flyers of "Questions the
Military Doesn't Want You to Ask," and Andersonville Neighbors for Peace
were there to, as their flyer read, "stand with everyone who opposes
turning Senn High School into a military training school." Matt Johnson and
Matt O'Donnell sat on a bench with a "Books Not Bombs" sign. Both students
at Loyola University, they'd heard about the forum via e-mails sent out
through campus listservs. "I'm opposed to the military, period," said
Johnson. "I've been trying to get some counter-recruitment organized on
campus, and then I heard about this." O'Donnell explained that he came to
learn more about the issues facing the school, "especially the military
going into low-income schools and making promises that won't be fulfilled."
Inside, there were tables with official Senn publications. According to one
flyer, Senn students come from 70 different countries, with 43.4% of
students born outside the US. 64.6% of Senn students speak a language other
than English at home, for a total of 57 languages school-wide. Senn's
newsletter noted that at a recent meeting for parents of bilingual
students, translation was provided in Spanish, Urdu French, Vietnamese, and
Gujarati. Attendants were also asked to sign in, though it was unclear for
what purpose and under whose auspices.
A little before the announced starting time of 6:30, the official program
started. People were still streaming into the auditorium. Students, many of
them dressed in Senn colors, lined the aisles with posters in English,
Spanish, and (I'm pretty sure) Arabic declaring "SAVE SENN! NO NAVY! AND
SENN IS OUR HOME—PLEASE DON'T DIVIDE IT!" According to the agenda I
received when I entered the auditorium, I'd just missed welcoming remarks
from Senn Principal Judith Hernandez and Alderman Mary Ann Smith. Smith has
been one of the naval academy's chief advocates. "I think they basically
offer an option. A different kind of discipline, a different kind of
camaraderie, a look at a slightly different kind of world," Smith said in a
story posted early Tuesday evening at CBS2Chicago.com.
After Smith's remarks, David Pickens, Deputy CEO of Chicago Public Schools
told the crowd that the presentation that evening would "dispell misinformation" and "let people know about all the great things the naval
academy has to offer." His comments were met with boos from the audience,
although they were nothing compared to what was to come. Principal
Hernandez asked students to give the presenters a fair hearing, and Pickens
repeated several times that the academy would not have any impact on the
school. Instead, it would be a small academy, like the one at Bronzeville
on the South Side. At CPS, he said, "We like the high attendance rates, low
drop-out rates, and purpose—'to build citizenship, teamwork, and
discipline'" that such military academies offered.
According to the agenda, the introductions were to be follwed by an
"Overview of the Proposed Educational Program" for the military academy,
given by Colonel Rick Mills. Mills, who was accompanied by four or five
other military representatives in civilian suits, had barely started
speaking when the audience began to boo and chant "WE SAY NO!"
The chants kept up, and continued, as Mills repeatedly tried to get the
audience's attention. Many of them were now standing, some standing on
their seats, and when Mills attempted to show the video, they turned their
backs to him and to the screen. The CPS and JROTC people then fled the
building as students threw various objects at them on their way out.
The plan to start the naval academy at Senn was announced over the summer
when school was not in session, but most Senn students, parents, and
faculty didn't hear about it until mid- September, when CPS surveyors
showed up at the school. According to the Senn-Times, the academy is
"backed by a a $2.1 million grant, and the ties shared by Chicago Public
Schools and the Naval Service Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois."
The naval academy, currently slated to open in fall 2005, will occupy the
29 classrooms that currently make up Senn's freshman wing. It will be
separated by a wall from the rest of the high school and function
independently. CPS, according to its Renaissance 2010 plan, is trying to
solve what it sees as the problems of under-utilization of buildings, lack
of high school options, over-crowding and low performance in the Chicago
schools by closing failing schools and reopening them as private charter
and contract academies. Opponents, however, note that the schools CPS plans
to close are largely in minority neighborhoods. As the most diverse school
in Chicago, Senn would be a likely target. But Senn is hardly a failing
school. In 2003, 83% of graduating seniors were planning to attend two or
four year colleges. Senn has won a National Service Learning Leadership
Award from the President of the United States, and it boasts, among other
things, a multi-lingual/TESOL program, an Achievement Academy for 8th
graders who have not yet met the requirements for high school, and a $1.2
million grant for "demonstrated leadership" from the Fry Foundation.
The pandemonium in the school auditorium continued. At last history teacher
Jesse Sharkey got hold of the microphone. "It seems like people don't want
to watch the video," he said. "I'm proposing that we have a discussion and
some time for questions. "We do not believe this is a harmless plan, and we
would like to have some community input, and perhaps some of us who have
been following this closely could answer some questions." Audience members
began to line up and speak at an open mic, and someone volunteered to
translate comments into Spanish.
"They're taking the best third of Senn School away from Senn students,"
said one woman. "Fairness requires that we give students what they need.
The naval academy takes away a lot of what students need." One speaker, who
identified himself as a teacher at Senn, noted that opposition "goes much
deeper than the militarization of the school. Our special education courses
are already over the limits. We have a full 7th period lunc. Does that
sound like a school that's being underutilized?" Another speaker said that
Senn is a model for other schools in the city. "Given that Senn operates so
well, we have to question the motives of those who come here to change it.
I think it's time that CPS stop aiding the military."
Alderman Smith, Deputy CEO Pickens, and Colonel Mills and his colleagues,
however, seemed uninterested in such a format, and as audience members
continued lining up for the open mic, they filed out a side entrance.
The open mic went on for about another hour, at which point Sharkey thanked
supporters for coming out but asked that the gathering now disband so that
the security guards could go home and the custodians could finish their
work. He welcomed everyone to join the efforts of the Save Senn Coalition,
noting that updates would be posted at www.savesenn.org.
pictures available at < http://chicago.indymedia.org/newswire/display/47176/index.php>
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