Updated: January 17, 2013 6:28AM
Parents at a Northwest Side middle school are going into battle against an alderman over his efforts to turn the facility into a military high school.
Ald. Robert Maldonado (26th) said he believes the under-enrolled Ames Middle School, 1920 N. Hamlin, would be the perfect site for an expanded Marine Math and Science Academy.
Children in the neighborhood need a quality high school and could benefit from the military school’s “structure, discipline and high expectations of their academic potential,” Maldonado told me last week.
The problem as I see it is that although the alderman was eager to explain his position to me he hasn’t been willing to attend a community meeting to make his case to his critics or listen to their view.
A group of Ames parents say they have nothing against selective enrollment military schools but are adamant Ames remain a neighborhood school serving everyone in their community.
Not every child or family would be comfortable in a military school, they say, where military uniforms and daily ROTC training are required, nor would every child be admitted.
“What’s going to happen to the rest of the kids? Where are they going to go?” said Emma Segura, who participates in a parent-mentor program at Ames.
Meanwhile, the parents are warily eyeing an expected move by Chicago Public Schools this week to allow military academies to begin accepting seventh and eighth graders, which will fuel a need for additional space. The Marine cadets currently share a school building at 145 S. Campbell.
This is all taking place against the backdrop of the unfolding CPS “under-utilization” efforts to close and consolidate dozens of schools citywide.
I see the dispute as a good example of how complicated every one of those consolidation decisions will be — with far-reaching and often painful ramifications for each community affected.
It also should serve as a warning to CPS about how much weight to give an alderman’s wishes. In this case, part of the problem is that Ames is located in a corner of Maldonado’s ward, which means the vast majority of students and parents aren’t his constituents.
That’s why I’m concerned when Ames parents say they fear nobody is listening to them, least of all Maldonado, who admits his mind is made up.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll emphasized no decisions have been made about Ames’ future.
“We’re in the middle just trying to listen to everybody,” she said.
While both sides are passionate about their positions, nobody disputes something needs to be done.
Ames opened in 1998 in response to community pressure to alleviate school overcrowding in the predominately Hispanic neighborhood, but it currently has an enrollment of just 480 seventh and eighth graders in a facility built to accommodate 1,100 students.
Maldonado said that’s primarily because many parents in the surrounding neighborhoods do not want to send their children to Ames because of its reputation as an underperforming school with discipline problems.
He admits his opinion was formed in part by a stint as Principal for a Day several years ago when he encountered unruly students flashing gang signs in the hallways.
While acknowledging past problems with the school, parents say Ames is on the upswing under a new principal and that the enrollment issues have been caused largely by CPS decisions to cut off the flow of students from two of the four elementary schools that previously fed into Ames.
While one of those schools, Funston, sought to keep its students, its less clear what motivated CPS to change the enrollment boundaries of the other school, Mozart, which is now becoming crowded.
Ames is a Level 2 school in the CPS lexicon, which means it is in good academic standing after recently coming off probation. But it’s certainly no high-performer — with 72 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards.
The Logan Square Neighborhood Association, at the forefront of getting Ames built, is now taking a lead in organizing parents trying to block the military academy.
Parents say a door-to-door survey of 357 area residents found 87 percent opposed making Ames a military high school. Maldonado accused LSNA of cooking its survey to achieve the desired results, arguing “they don’t represent the parents of this community.”
While admitting he has refused to attend a community meeting to discuss the school’s fate, he accused LSNA leaders of refusing his invitation to tour the Marine Math & Science Academy.
After visiting Ames on Thursday, I called Maldonado from the parking lot, and he joined me there within five minutes to argue his case.
Maldonado said the area is currently without any high-performing high school option and that 7th-8th grade middle schools are a failed educational model.
Parents say they’ve long sought a good high school, just not a military school. They also say they’d welcome discussions to fill Ames’ empty classrooms by making it 6th thru 8th grade or 7th through 12th.
One thing I know for sure: as unpleasant as it may be, Maldonado needs to suck it up and go have that talk with them — before this is a done deal.