HERMOSA — Chicago Public Schools officials have announced a plan to add seventh and eighth grades to both Kelvyn Park High School and McAuliffe Elementary School to accommodate Ames Middle School's controversial conversion to a military-based program.
The school shake-up would make Kelvyn Park the neighborhood school for students from Falconer, Barry and Nixon elementary schools, all of whom formerly attended Ames. Students from McAuliffe, also currently K-6, will now stay there as seventh- and eighth-graders instead of moving to Ames.
CPS officials announced the proposed changes at meetings at McAuliffe and Kelvyn Park last week, where they defended the plan to convert Ames into a Marine-based program open to students citywide. CPS is now referring to such schools as "Service Leadership Academies."
"There's a perception that Service [Leadership] Academies are out to recruit students into the military, but that's not true," said Todd Connor, CPS chief officer of the Service Leadership Academy Network. "Not everyone wants to put on a uniform, and we acknowledge that, but we want to provide options."
The meetings were also used as an opportunity for parents, students and other community members to voice their concerns about the decision, though the result was much like the school-closing meetings, in which CPS officials sat at a table at the front while one after the other people took the microphone to lash out against the proposal.
One Kelvyn Park teacher even described it as "shouting into the void."
"My concern is the school has not been given enough time," said state Rep. Toni Berrios (D-Chicago) at Thursday night's meeting at Kelvyn Park. "I don't think the school is ready. It needs time to be ready."
The short notice given about the proposal was the complaint from many of parents and teachers who said they were given at most a week's notice of the meeting and the proposal, and in the case of some parents who spoke, as little as a few hours. The CPS School Board is set to vote on the conversion of all three schools — Ames, McAuliffe and Kelvyn Park — at this Wednesday's board meeting.
"The teachers have been kept in the dark, the students have been kept in the dark, and the community has been kept in the dark," teacher Eric Wagner said.
Other concerns included potential overcrowding at McAullife if two grades are added. The school is listed as 10 percent above ideal enrollment.
One Kelvyn Park student spoke of the continued destabilization of the high school, which has seen layoffs, budget cuts and a handful of principals in four years.
"I have seen five principals come and go since 2009," said Jennifer Velasquez, a recent Kelvyn Park grad. "I've seen $4 million taken from Kelvyn Park. Why do we have to change just because of someone's dream to make Ames into a military school? We all have dreams."
Meanwhile, neighborhood activists and Ames parents said they have gathered enough signatures to get an advisory referendum on the Ames Middle School change onto the March 18 general primary ballot in eight precincts around Ames, falling in the 1st, 26th and 35th wards.
The ballot question would ask voters whether they think Ames should remain a neighborhood school or be converted into a military high school.
The referendum would not be legally binding, but it would provide another venue for community members to express their wishes.
Though CPS did not address specific concerns from parents, in an email Monday evening CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett wrote:
"CPS hosted two community meetings last week to solicit input on proposed boundary changes to support academic investments at Ames Middle School. These investments would bring an enhanced and proven academic program, Service Leadership Academies, to Ames and expand neighborhood options in the Humboldt Park community.
"Those meetings represented a critical component in the overall engagement process involving parents and community members, in advance of the proposals being presented to the Board this week.
"The demand for Service Leadership Academies in CPS is growing year by year, with more than 6,500 students applying for 900 spots last school year. Demand has been particularly strong from residents in and around this community, which is why the District is seeking to bring this academically rigorous environment to Ames."