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From Draft NOtices, April-June 2014

Community Says “No” to Another Military Academy

— Libby Frank

Ames Middle School for 7th and 8th grade students is located in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. It’s a predominantly Latino working-class community. The school was built in 1998 after extensive pressure from the community to relieve overcrowding.

Sometime in 2012 Roberto Maldonado, the alderman for the ward that includes Ames, visited the school as principal for a day. Apparently the students were a bit rowdy (they are 7th and 8th graders, after all). He claims they were flashing gang signs, so he decided that the school should be turned into a military academy.

For months there was some back and forth on this proposal, but on December 18, 2013, the school board (which is appointed by the mayor, by the way) voted 5 to 2 in favor of turning Ames into a Marine academy. In the meantime the Ames community (teachers, parents, students, residents) conducted several surveys among the parents and students that showed that the community overwhelmingly wanted to keep Ames a neighborhood school. Undaunted by the school board’s decision, the community launched a petition drive to get a referendum on the spring ballot. The question presented to voters was: “Should Ames Middle School (1920 North Hamlin Ave) be maintained as a neighborhood school, rather than being converted into a military school?”

All through the months of December, January, February and part of March, activists canvassed the eight precincts surrounding the school, first to gather enough signatures to get the question on the ballot, and then to educate residents about the issue and encourage them to vote. Remember, this was during what has turned out to be THE COLDEST WINTER EVER in Chicago. The primary took place March 18, 2014. The final vote was 68.87% in favor of keeping Ames a neighborhood school; 31.13% were opposed. The vote is even more impressive when you take into account that the alderman sent out robo calls and mass email to encourage people to vote “No” and even dispatched Marines to several polling places on election day.

A rational person might think this obvious mandate by the community would end the discussion. But this is Chicago. The school board voted in December, and the Marines have been in the school for months taking measurements and preparing for the change. The Local School Council (equivalent to a Parent Teacher Organization) was disbanded in February. About $7 million of taxpayer money has been allocated to repurpose Ames and turn it into the Marine Leadership Academy.

What’s even worse, though, is the effect on the students. The military academy will be selective enrollment; it’s not open to everyone. Those that don’t choose to attend the military academy or can’t get in will have to travel an additional mile or more to a high school that is being expanded to include 7th and 8th grades -- an idea troubling enough in itself. Several programs that had thrived at Ames will disappear: the student orchestra, the medical clinic and ELEV8 (a college preparedness program).

Credit for the success of the referendum and community organizing goes to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Founded in 1962, LSNA is a nonprofit, multi-issue community organization serving the community of Logan Square. They have launched many effective programs in over fifty years of existence: parent mentor, gentrification, truancy, parent engagement, housing, immigration. In particular, the organizing was led by staff from the ELEV8 program, which is housed at Ames.

What’s ahead? The referendum is nonbinding. There has been no official response from the Chicago Public Schools. Most people believe that the military academy will be installed at Ames; those students not able or willing to attend will be displaced. But the community clearly spoke and will not soon forget. Stay tuned.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/).

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