LOGAN SQUARE — Parents are up in arms over an alderman's proposal to turn their neighborhood school into a military academy.
The parents say they don't want Ames Middle School, 1920 N. Hamlin, to become home to the Marine Military Math & Science Academy, a high school now located on the Near West Side. The plan, which includes changing the military academy's enrollment to include seventh- and eighth-graders, is being pushed by Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th).
"It doesn't need to be a military school. It's fine the way it is," said Maria Romero, one of 100 parents and community activists who crowded into an Ames classroom earlier this month to voice their displeasure with Maldonado's proposal to the Board of Education.
Romero and other mothers said they are open to the idea of including ninth- through 12th- graders to the Ames enrollment. About 500 students attend the 1,100-capacity school, and as city school officials consider closing some low-enrollment schools, parents realize that something will have to change.
But they are worried that the plan would mean the school would have selective enrollment, forcing some children to go elsewhere. In the predominantly low-income community, parents fear that taking their kids farther away would be a burden.
"All the parents are scared. Where are they going to go? What's going to happen to them?" said Alivette Alicea, another concerned mother.
Maldonado said in an interview after the meeting that his proposal for the school is still in its early stages, describing it as "just a concept." But in a newsletter he sent to constituents later in the month, he said he was "strongly lobbying" for the move.
The idea came to him a few years ago when he was visiting Ames as part of Chicago Public Schools' Principal for a Day program, the alderman said. Maldonado said he saw kids flashing gang signs and using profanity and was deeply troubled by the metal detectors at the front doors.
"I thought the kids from that community deserved better," he said. "I would like for anybody to challenge that the academic achievement of a military school is not desirable."
Some students at the school also support the change. Eighth-grader Adelaida Perez, 14, said she applied to another military academy for high school, but would be happier if one was located closer to her home.
"I think it would be good," she said.
Parents acknowledge the Marine Academy's academic standing is better than some of the other high schools Ames students might attend, such as Kelvyn Park and Clemente.
Parents said that Ames itself was much worse a few years back, but according to parents and Chicago Public Schools records, it has made a lot of progress. In 2010, 66 percent of Ames students were meeting state standards. By 2012, the number had jumped to 71 percent, and the school is considered to be in "good" academic standing by the district.
Parents credit the school's new principal, Turon Ivy, with some of those improvements, and said they would like to see him continue. Earlier this month he signed a four-year contract at the school.
"It's my hope to keep the school as a community school," Ivy said."I think there has to be more dialogue as a community."
"We're open-minded about having options," he said. "We all know that we could utilize [the building] more than we do now."
Still, some activists in the city are disturbed that kids as young as 12 could be targets of military recruitment. Darlene Gramigna heads the American Friends Service Committee's Chicago Truth in Recruitment Program, which combats what it calls the "militarization of youth."
"The big thing they say about the military academies is that it's not for recruitment, but we think that's the biggest lie. Of course it's for recruitment," she said. "What's more of a military recruitment than have an entire high school orientation that way?"
She also said so-called "back-room deals," are typical for military schools in Chicago.
"What's happened before is those military academies get decided through the board and not through principals and the community," she said.
Beyond academics, discipline is cited as another benefit of military schools, but Gramigna also takes issue with that.
"There's discipline in art, there's discipline in music, there's discipline in sports, or anything the people are interested in," she said. "There's no evidence that military schools are better for urban schools."
The Marine Academy, at 145 S. Campbell, is in good academic standing, but only 26.5 percent of its students meet or exceed state standards. That is below the districtwide average for high schools, of 31.5 percent. Officials there did not respond to requests for comment.
CPS officials, too, have remained tight-lipped about plans for Ames. CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said officials are deciding what to do.
"CPS is committed to providing high quality options to every student in every community across the district," she said. "At this time, CPS is working to gather input and feedback from the community, inclusive of the families of the students at Ames and the alderman, to determine what best suits the needs of the children in order for them to succeed academically."