Emanuel says Marine Academy to take over Ames School

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UPDATE: CPS officials now say that Ames will convert to a military school and add high school grades, but that Marine Math and Science Academy will not move into the Ames building, according to WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune. The news comes just days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Marine Academy would relocate into the Ames building, a move that Ames parents had long suspected and fought against. The relocation would have effectively shuttered Ames just months after the controversial closure of 49 schools.

For over a year, parents at Ames Middle School fought a proposal by 26th Ward Ald. Roberto Maldonado to move Marine Math and Science Academy into the school. They held rallies, showed up at school board meetings, and contacted decision makers – only to be told that CPS had no such plan in the works. Yet on Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced exactly that move.

He was flanked by Board President David Vitale, Vice President Jesse Ruiz, Maldonado and 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett.

The change, which will effectively result in Ames closing, comes in spite of a CPS pledge not to close any schools for underutilization or academic reasons in the next 5 years. In a fact sheet, the mayor’s office calls the move a change in “academic focus” for Ames and notes that Ames is a Level 3 school that “has consistently been 50 percent underutilized.”

Though more students are attending the school this year than last due to the addition of Barry and Falconer as feeder schools, parent Emma Segura says enrollment is around 575 students. That’s far below the 1,110 students the school was designed for.

Before Marine Math and Science Academy moves in, the building will get $7 million in renovations paid for with tax-increment financing (TIF) dollars, including new science, computer, art and music classrooms.  Current  Ames students will be able to stay as students at Marine Academy. The new school will end up with 750 additional seats, according to the mayor’s office. Phoenix Military Academy will take over the building it now shares with Marine, gaining 600 new seats.

Emanuel touted the new 1350 seats as part of a plan to increase the number of seats in selective military schools by 60 percent, because of an increase in applications to those schools. Currently, 2,800 students are enrolled in military programs, Emanuel said, and 90 percent of those who graduate go on to attend 4-year colleges.

Admission to these schools is based on test scores, 7th-grade grades and attendance at an information session where students write an essay and complete a “Motivation and Perseverance Assessment.

“For every opening we have, there are six students trying to get in,” Emanuel said. He said his pledge to parents whose students q ualify for admission is that “from now on, you’re going to get an acceptance letter, not a rejection letter.”

This year, three of the district’s six military schools – Marine, Phoenix, and Rickover – saw enrollment increases of between 6 percent and 16 percent. But enrollment was down 6 percent at Air Force Academy High School, and 13 percent at Chicago Military Academy.

At the press conference announcing the move, Cadet 2nd Lt. Jordan Grajales, a sophomore at Marine, said that he had attended Ames but “wasn’t being academically [challenged] to the best of my abilities.” He said he found that challenge by coming to Marine, which was “much more structured.”

Afterwards, Cadet Lt. Col. Christopher Fletcher, a senior who is the battalion commander for Marine, said that “there’s a lot of people that are confused about what it means to go to a military school. We are here to help students, not to reform students. We are here to help students excel, students that want to excel.”

Parents charge back-door dealings

When asked about board members’ past claims that no changes to Ames were in the works, Ruiz said, “I don’t recall the statement. Things are always being explored, how to improve options for students.”

He added: “For this community to have an opportunity to have a rebirth of a school is a positive thing.”

Ruiz predicted that an increased number of available seats will lead to an even greater number of applications at military academies. “The fact that there’s more opportunity will advertise itself,” he said.

A number of parents from Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which has long been opposed to Marine’s move to the Ames building, protested outside Emanuel’s press conference. “I’m really angry; I’m very upset. They never came to the school and talked to the parents,” said parent Emma Segura, who has a 7th– grade and an 8th-grade student at Ames. “They haven’t even come to the school to see how the school is utilized.”

Segura says parents are upset because they need information from CPS about whether “your children are going to move out, (or) your kids are going to stay there.” Key to her concerns are whether Marine, a selective military high school, will be able to serve bilingual and special needs students.

She adds that parents would be willing to discuss the issue if given the opportunity.

“If Maldonado would come and talk to us, we would talk to him,” Segura said. “But nobody has.”

Miriam Perez, a community representative on Marine’s LSC who attended the press conference and whose son will attend the school next year, says she is enthusiastic about the move.

“My son was telling me he is very happy to move in.  His vision is, ‘I’m going to be an example for the 7th– and 8th-graders,’ ” Perez says. “They’re not using the space. This is a great idea.”

But, Perez said, she was not aware that Ames would be closing.

Maldonado said he had worked with Vitale, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Mayor Emanuel to move Marine into the Ames building. He also thanked longtime community activist Rev. Walter “Slim” Coleman for helping bring the deal to fruition.

“Who better than our clergy to understand the psychological and emotional needs of our kids?” Maldonado asked.