Altgeld Gardens: ‘A military school in name only’

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Carver Military Academy

John Booz

Carver Military Academy

When Carver High School was converted into a military academy four years ago, Curtis Murphy, then the school’s principal, predicted it would become as prestigious as the Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville, the district’s first.

“We’ll be like Bronzeville, but a little different,” Murphy said as he gave a visitor a tour of the school in the summer of 2000. “We will be an elite school.”

That prediction, however, has yet to be fulfilled.

Unlike Bronzeville, a showpiece for Chicago Public Schools, Carver’s conversion came with scant resources and little support from central leadership. Since it opened in 2000, the school has had three principals, and it still seats a regular local school council, not the required board of governors whose membership would include military experts. Most of the pre-conversion faculty and staff remain and have not reapplied for their jobs like those at other converted schools. And test scores remain in the basement—Carver has been on academic probation since 1996.

While Carver and Chicago Military both look for students who are willing to commit to stricter rules and regulations, Carver does not require students to be on grade level to be admitted; Chicago Military does.

“The school is a military school in name only,” says Darryl Gibson, one of the school’s parent local school council members whose son is a senior at Carver; another son graduated in June.

However, the appointment this summer of a new principal with military credentials has raised hopes that Carver’s sluggish conversion would finally gain traction.

School officials say the school’s conversion is still underway, noting that instead of closing Carver, CPS opened up the military program to incoming freshmen while students enrolled in the old academic program were allowed to remain through graduation.

Those students had been phased out by spring 2003, and by fall, Carver was a full-fledged military academy, at least in terms of enrollment.

Since graduating its first military students in June, the School Board has replaced the principal with a new one who has a military background, something Carver’s last two administrators didn’t have.

By next spring, they plan to appoint a board and determine whether staff will be required to reapply for their jobs. However, some loose ends remain, such as whether to change student admissions criteria.

In fact, this year, school administrators are meeting regularly to develop standards for creating quality military schools citywide.

“We don’t want Carver to be a stepchild,” says Area 24 Instructional Officer Cynthia Barron, who is working closely with the academy to help it get off probation and complete its transition into a full-fledged academy. “We want equality. It is no longer the one who speaks the loudest gets the most.”

Carver an option, not a choice

Bronzeville was opened in 1999 to give parents another educational option that emphasized discipline and a more rigid structure than other high schools.

Military academies were not created to send students to the service, but rather to prepare them for college using military methods to help them get there, says Donald Pittman, chief officer of high school programs. “These schools promote leadership,” he explains. “Students who go through this type of structure tend to do well academically, live responsibly and go to college. A military structure pushes students and asks them to do their best. You don’t have this at a regular high school.”

Indeed, fewer than 10 percent of seniors who graduated in June from Chicago Military and Carver joined the military. However, far fewer Carver graduates go on to college and get scholarships to pay for it.

“We hoped that [Carver] would get a rebirth,” Pittman says, explaining the district was looking to offer choice in a community where options are limited. “It was on the decline as a high school.”

However, unlike Chicago Military which started from scratch, building its program one grade at a time, Carver remained open and ran two separate academic programs for three years.

“The transition could have been smoother,” says Vanessa Rogers, Carver’s current LSC chair. “The board didn’t do what they’d done with other schools, which is close them and reopen them. If they had, every student would have had the same focus and expectations.”

“That first year, you could tell that this was something that was being tried and was not a finished project,” says Gibson. “You had people who were not experienced in military concepts.

Teachers didn’t know what to expect and there was no money to support the effort. Bronzeville was supported with millions of dollars. Carver has not received the same kind of support.”

Chicago Military got seven times more money for its launch, $28 million compared to $4 million, but it had to convert an unoccupied armory into a fully equipped school.

Still, CPS administrators defend their decision and the extended conversion period, saying the district didn’t want to force out students who were not interested in the military option. “You can’t come in and shove this down people’s throats,” says Pittman. “We’ve been trying to make sure this is done right. There were students there who didn’t choose the military academy so they had to transition out. Now, everyone who is there, wants to be there.”

New leader has military background

In 2002, Murphy retired and Assistant Principal William Johnson took his place. Then this past summer, Johnson was reassigned to Fenger, whose principal was removed this year because of the school’s poor academic performance.

“Johnson was going a good job, but you can’t lead a particular initiative if you don’t have the background,” says Barron. “He didn’t have the military background.”

Carver’s newest principal, installed in August, is John Thomas, who has been an officer in the Army Reserves for eight years and was the former principal of Mose Vines Preparatory Academy, one of four small schools at the former Orr High School.

Barron says one of the most dramatic changes since Thomas’ arrival was the implementarion of the military academy senior cadet leadership structure, which previously had existed only on paper. Under a military academy system, juniors and seniors earn rank and are placed into leadership roles that they begin working on as early as freshman year. Upperclassmen are responsible for disciplining students and overseeing building upkeep, for instance. In turn, underclassmen learn the ropes from their older peers.

“We have 200 leadership positions,” says Thomas. When Carver military enrolled its first class four years ago, there were no students to fill these roles, he says. “Now when freshmen come in, they will see the structure.”

Board of governors next

With the new leadership and structure in place, Pittman says selecting a board of governors is next. He expects the board to be seated by summer 2005. Members of the current local school council, which the board plans to disband, must apply for a seat on the board.

However, one parent advocate says such a move is illegal, and asserts that the School Board has a history of creating policies that break the law but suit their needs.

“We don’t think this is legal,” says Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). Exceptions to the state law that requires electing local school councils—small schools or alternative schools like military academies, for instance—do not apply to schools that have a current LSC, she says.

Also, faculty, most of whom were on board prior to Carver’s conversion, may be required to reapply for their jobs next spring, says Pittman. So far, there has been no discussion about what staff qualifications would be required, or if under the existing teachers union contract, it would be even possible to make faculty reapply.

A Chicago Teachers Union official says the issue raises concerns. “This is a threat to our membership,” says CTU spokesperson Rosemaria Genova. “Teachers would have to be reassured that they had to reapply only as a matter of procedure and were guaranteed their jobs.”

At Chicago Military, Principal Richard Gray says its teacher qualifications are much like any other high school; it wants good, qualified teachers.

However, the school asks that teachers be willing to support the military program. “If we are focused on students wearing a uniform, we ask teachers to look for uniform violations,” says Gray. “We are enforcing timeliness, so we want teachers to record accurate attendance. We have a merit and demerit system. We ask teachers to use it.”

Strategies to boost scores

Thomas, in the meantime, will have to work on boosting students’ scores. His plan is to focus in improving instruction and providing students with additional services such as after-school tutoring. He also hopes students will take more responsibility themselves.

“Test scores have flatlined,” he says. “I tell students I can bring you the best teachers, the best resources, books, but until you are motivated to learn, it won’t happen.”

At the district level, area instructional officers, principals and central office staff are meeting monthly to develop academic and operational standards for military academies. Besides Carver and Chicago Military, there are nine other high schools with military programs open now, and one full-fledged Naval Academy in the works at Senn High School.

“We’ll look at the acceptance procedure, what should be required of students and whether all the military schools receive the same resources and are supported in the same way,” says Barron.

As for Carver, Barron says, “Transition is tough. Building a culture is tough. And all of this takes time.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.