News & Politics » Essay

Senn's Last Stand

Mayor Daley thinks a naval academy at the school would be just fine. Guess that's the end of that discussion.



For the past several weeks activists in Edgewater have been working behind the scenes to cut a deal with school officials on the proposed naval academy at Senn High School. "We wanted to get the board an out so they could back away from the academy," says one community organizer who asked to remain anonymous. "We thought we had an arrangement."

But on December 9, at a meeting at the North Shore Baptist Church, schools CEO Arne Duncan and Congressman Jan Schakowsky let them know they didn't. "What happened has a lot more to do with politics than education," says the organizer.

And money. Last spring the navy offered the school system $2.1 million to create a naval academy on the north side, and the system, hard up for funds, accepted. At first school officials came up with a logical location--the Arai school on Wilson near Broadway, which the board was shutting down. But 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller said she didn't want it there. So Duncan took the idea of putting it in Senn, at 5900 N. Glenwood, to 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith, who eagerly endorsed it even though the academy would take over a third of the building.

It looked like the system would get the navy's money at no political cost. Schools like Whitney Young or Northside or Payton would make a fuss if the board suddenly announced it was taking away a third of their space for a military academy. But Senn had no strong local school council. A lot of its 1,700 students are immigrants and refugees, many of them still learning English. They probably wouldn't protest, and if they did, who would listen? Smith obviously didn't think the proposal would cost her many votes or she wouldn't have signed on without even a community meeting.

"They overlooked us," says Ross Freshwater, a history teacher at Senn.

That's putting it mildly. In September school officials told Senn's teachers the academy was coming next year whether they liked it or not. Angry teachers talked to students, who talked to parents, and soon everybody was angry.

On October 7 more than 500 teachers, students, parents, and activists jammed into Senn's auditorium to denounce the proposal. In the face of heckling and jeering, Smith and David Pickens, one of Duncan's top aides, retreated without making the presentation they'd intended. Afterward teachers and students held protest rallies and wrote dozens of letters to newspapers. By November several local churches and community groups, including the Organization of the NorthEast (ONE), were against the plan too. And the media were all over the story.

Duncan was in an embarrassing position. Clearly he and his staff had underestimated the teachers' determination and the school's connection to the community. They began saying that their only intention had been to meet the needs of north-side students, even though no north-siders had asked for a military academy, and they began to criticize Senn. They said its test scores were low. It was underused. Its glory days had passed. Many locals wouldn't dream of sending their kids there. Senn isn't a high-scoring school, but it has an international baccalaureate program for bright kids. And it's a port-of-entry school--almost two-thirds of the students come from homes where English isn't the primary language.

While engaging in this public war of words, Duncan and his aides began meeting privately with Senn staff and local leaders. "We wanted the board to drop the naval academy idea," says the community organizer, "and the board just wanted to get this out of the papers."

Smith made it clear she wouldn't budge from her support of the academy. But its opponents thought they had an ally in Schakowsky, who'd spoken out in favor of community input on the issue.

Looming over the whole debate was Mayor Daley, who didn't comment publicly about the academy until November 30, one day after his son, Patrick, joined the army. "I don't know why people are so upset about this idea of discipline and this idea of military service," Daley said. "I believe in military academies all over this city. More discipline to younger people. The mentors we receive from sergeants and officers in the high schools are wonderful. They become almost mothers and fathers to them."

As word of Daley's comments spread around Edgewater, the academy opponents realized they were in trouble. It would take an act of political courage for any public official, even an independent-minded liberal like Schakowsky, to break with the mayor. The school board, which is appointed by Daley and usually does what he says, would meet on December 15 to vote on the matter.

The activists figured their last chance was a December 9 community meeting at the North Shore Baptist Church. "We were going to put it directly to Duncan in front of a room filled with Senn supporters," says the community organizer. "We were going to ask him point-blank, 'Will you postpone the board's vote on the 15th so you can at least meet with the community to discuss other options for making Senn better?'"

On the night of the meeting several hundred people filled the church. Alderman Smith was there, as were her top allies, 48th Ward Democratic committeeman Michael Volini and state representative Harry Osterman. Duncan got there early. Schakowsky walked in ten minutes late.

From the get-go Duncan was the center of attention. He sat at a table in the front next to Schakowsky as speaker after speaker blasted the idea of a naval academy and implored him to change his mind, to remember that he believed in community participation.

If he was angry he didn't let on. He looked all of the speakers in the eye. He thanked them for coming, praised them for speaking out, said he wished he had as many dedicated citizens in other parts of the city. He apologized for not doing a better job of community outreach and promised it would never happen again. When one member from a gay-rights group lambasted him "for giving the message that antigay discrimination is OK" by promoting the military and its don't-ask-don't-tell policy, he calmly said, "I appreciate your passion." When another speaker asked how in good conscience he could "promote militarism to young people before they have a chance to explore other options," he spoke about his parents. "They were Quakers," he said. "They met in a Quaker work camp. No one is more antiwar than I am. It breaks my heart that we would send our children to a war that makes no sense."

It was like watching Muhammad Ali use the rope-a-dope defense on George Foreman. The harder the audience pounded, the more Duncan leaned against the ropes, absorbing the blows. He was obviously determined not to have a repeat of the October 7 meeting. And unlike Smith and Pickins, he would not walk out.

An hour into the meeting someone asked him the big question, "Will you postpone the December 15 vote on the academy?"

Duncan looked her in the eye and gently shook his head. "No," he said. "I think it makes sense to go forward with that vote."

For a moment there was silence.

"Warmonger," called a man from the back.

"This is a farce," someone else yelled out.

The moderator, Judy Gall, a ONE board member, asked Schakowsky to speak. The crowd applauded thunderously as she stood up.

"I want to suggest you hold your applause--you might not like everything I have to say," she said. "I don't have a philosophical opposition to the navy."

People in the crowd gasped. "Jesus, Jan, it's not the navy--it's community control!" one man yelled. "What happened to giving the community a voice?"

Schakowsky said she'd be happy to work with Duncan to make sure the academy was well integrated into Senn.

With that, the meeting was pretty much over. Duncan walked up the long aisle through the hostile crowd alone.

Afterward a group of organizers retreated to the basement. Some students talked of conducting a school walkout on the day of the board vote.

"I'm pretty disappointed," said the community organizer. "I should have known it was over the day Daley made his comments. The mayor spoke--and they listened. Who cares what the community wants?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/George Schmidt.

Add a comment