School for Sale | Essay | Chicago Reader

School for Sale 

When the navy came knocking with more than $2 million, the Board of Ed decided Senn High School would be a great place to install a military academy. But teachers, parents, and students there didn't see it that way.

On October 7 Alderman Mary Ann Smith and officials from the Board of Education went to Senn High School to tell students, teachers, and parents about their plan to turn a third of the school into a naval academy. They were greeted with hoots and howls. "It was not a productive, open-minded session," says board spokesman Peter Cunningham.

He's right. The 500 or so people in the audience were rude, crude, and loud. But then the board sort of had it coming. Putting a military academy in Senn, located at 5900 N. Glenwood, has to be one of the goofiest top-down decisions to come out of the central office in years. "They're essentially planning to take away the best part of our school and cram us into the rest of the building," says Jesse Sharkey, a social studies teacher at Senn. "They're turning us into a divided community, in which one group of students is favored and the other would become neglected children. And they're surprised that we're upset? What did they expect? What were they thinking?"

Actually, Senn wasn't the first place board members thought of when the navy offered them $2.1 million to set up an academy. They did want to put it somewhere on the north side, because the west side already had an academy and the south side had two. (Students must apply for entry.) Their first choice was Arai, a middle school at 900 W. Wilson. That made sense because the board is phasing it out as a middle school and plans to turn it into some kind of high school by the fall of 2006. "Obviously," says David Pickens, a deputy to schools CEO Arne Duncan, "it would minimize displacement."

But Arai is in the 46th Ward, and the alderman, Helen Shiller, didn't want a military school in her ward. Why isn't clear; Shiller hasn't returned my calls. But Pickens says she was so opposed that he and other central-office officials shifted their attention to Senn, which is in Smith's ward, the 48th.

"Of course I was receptive to the idea," says Smith. "I certainly wasn't going to turn my back on a great opportunity for my ward." She says she has a "strong appreciation" for the navy. Her husband, Ronald Smith, was a naval aviator, and a former aide, David Sauve, is now a navy lieutenant. Some of her greatest political heroes--Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter--were navy men. "The navy is what you make of it," she says. "Look what it's done for David. He's learned how to fly a plane. But more importantly, look how quickly he was promoted to a position of leadership."

Over the summer and into the fall navy officials and board members scurried around Senn drawing up plans. To them it seemed a perfect fit. Its enrollment was at 1,700, but board records showed the school could accommodate as many as 2,800. The building is divided into three wings. They wanted to stick the academy in the south wing and cut it off from the rest of the school with a wall.

There was only one problem--Senn's students and staff. "The first thing we heard about it was when navy and central-office people were inspecting our classrooms," says Sharkey. "We were invisible to them. We would hear them talking. 'Oh, come over here--this place looks great.' A teacher would be standing in her doorway, and someone would rush past her into the classroom, look around, and walk out--and not say a word to the teacher."

On September 17 the teachers were finally invited to meet with Pickens at Smith's office. The academy, they were told, would offer leadership and discipline for kids who might want to make the military their life. "This is all about creating education opportunities," says Pickens.

The teachers weren't impressed. For one thing, they say, there aren't enough classrooms to go around, no matter what the board's planners think. "I don't know where they get their numbers, but their numbers are wrong," says Debra Steinke, a gym teacher. She wonders if they come from the days when the school was so overcrowded it had students coming in shifts. And, she says, "if they were to actually look at how we have to operate instead of just looking past us, they'd see that a lot of the rooms they call classrooms aren't classrooms at all."

Some rooms are too small for full-size classes, others have been closed for repairs. "Not all teachers have their own classrooms right now," says Fanny Clonch, a French teacher. "We have to move around. I don't know where they would put us if they forced us to leave a wing of the school."

Moreover, the central office wanted to give the navy the wing that had five recently renovated science labs, leaving the regular students without the equipment used in college-prep classes. In the name of giving some kids an opportunity, the board would be taking opportunities away from others. Several teachers also point out that the board has other options on the north side, including the former Near North High School, at 1450 N. Larrabee, which has been vacant for years.

The way the siting was handled is more evidence of the disconnect between the people who run the public schools and the people who work at and attend them. The central office tends to judge schools strictly by how their students score on standardized tests. By that measurement there are only a few good schools in the system and lots of bad ones. And the central office seems to feel free to tamper with the bad ones as it sees fit.

Compared with, say, Northside College Prep or Walter Payton or Whitney Young, Senn isn't a high-scoring school. But that doesn't mean it's a bad school. It's clean and well organized. It has an international baccalaureate program for bright students. It has a wide range of clubs and after-school activities. Its Service Learning Center sends hundreds of students to volunteer at hospitals, senior citizen homes, and other social service agencies across the city. It even has an ROTC program. "They keep talking about leadership and discipline like our kids aren't leaders, like our kids aren't disciplined," says Steinke. "They just have this incredibly patronizing idea about our kids."

Senn's greatest contribution to the city may be that it's a port-of-entry school, absorbing hundreds of young refugees and immigrants from all over the world. About 1,100 of its students--64 percent of the enrollment--come from homes where English isn't the primary language. Its bilingual program has teachers who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Urdu, Arabic, and French. "We have kids from Africa, Asia, Europe, Central America--it's our bilingual program that unites them," says Clonch. "They feel comfortable when they're with other students who do not speak English proficiently. To me, Senn's a great place--sort of a United Nations without diplomacy. These are children who have suffered. Some of them have experienced torture. Many of them have known hunger. I know we're not perfect. But we offer hope and a proper education."

Teachers and students were angry by the time Pickens and Smith turned up on October 7. Pickens wanted to show a film promoting the academy, but people in the audience booed and jeered and turned their backs.

Pickens and Smith wound up leaving early. "There really was no point in staying, since it was clear no one was going to listen," says Pickens. "It was very unfortunate. We wanted a civil meeting. But there was fearmongering. I saw mostly teachers and uninformed students. It was almost like the teachers didn't want the students to get our message."

Smith says the academy, which she hopes to name for Jimmy Carter, is coming even if some people don't like it. She says plenty of residents want it: "I've gotten calls from people who said, 'I'd like to send my children there.'"

Yet the central office seems to be backing off a bit. According to Pickens, no official design has been approved. No one's sure which wing will be used or whether a wall will be built--or whether they'll bring the academy to Senn at all. "This is all discussion," he says. "Nothing final has been approved. It's very much a work in progress."

Senn's teachers, students, and parents plan to keep the pressure on. "I think this is going to be a political battle," says Sharkey. "A lot of people with power are going to have to hear from a lot of people who are angry."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette marie Dostatni.

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