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LOCAL News :: Children & Education : Peace : Urban Development

Senn Task Force Meeting Becomes Hotbed of Debate

A new taskforce being set up to analyze Senn High School began its first meeting with debate over the possibility of the break-up of the school to give it a Naval Academy wing.

The Edgewater community saw more tension from within tonight as community leaders gathered for the inaugural meeting of a new task force set up to explore 'improvements' to the neighborhood's Senn High School. But the task force was assembled by local Alderwoman Mary Ann Smith at a time when she has seen much criticism for her support for the construction of a Naval Academy in parts of Senn, against the wishes of students, teachers, and parents.

The early evening meeting held at a cramped room in the Armory adjacent to the gym was packed with fifty community members, including twenty-five who were specifically invited in letters sent out by Smith. Also in attendance was Chief of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan, as well as local clergy, academics, former and current Senn teachers, and invited representatives of Chinese Mutual Aid, Centro Romero, and the AIDS Legal Council. But the room was packed with representatives of the Save Senn Coalition, including activists with the Chicagoland Coalition Opposed to Militarization of Youth, the Gay Liberation Network, and three DePaul Students Against the War activists representing Education Not Empire, all of whom Smith noted as "the uninvited."

At the beginning of the meeting, Smith explained that the Task Force was to be formed for eighteen months to discuss how to improve Senn HS. She then noted that "people have different definitions of improvement." The meeting was then handed over to John Horan, Principle of North Lawndale College Prep, who was unable to prevent an informal meeting style. Quickly, members of Save Senn and Senn teachers chided Smith for her failure to invite any faculty to be members of the Task Force, and then that she had not invited either members of the Save Senn Coalition nor student representatives. Smith accepted her mistake and offered to let the SSC and the teachers to select representatives for future meetings. Duncan, Smith and Horan began speaking about community involvement and inclusion.

The first comments quickly drew focus to the planned Naval Academy that would invade one third of a school where most students learn English as a second language and come from working poor backgrounds. One teacher, Rob, asked "Why are you two here talking about community involvement when you weren't a few months ago when you were pushing the Naval Academy?"

"You said you weren't going to make proposals, but you already made the biggest proposal- giving Senn over to the Navy," he said to applause. Horan, wearing a peace sign lapel, attempted to calm down the tight room. A parent asked "Speaking of the future, and how much more money has the Pentagon promised you after the $2.1 million? That's all you're selling out for?"

Horan attempted to facilitate the meeting in the direction of other problems that community members saw. Invited guests mentioned issues of community democracy and distrust rooted in the Naval Academy, while teachers mentioned fears of privatization, union-busting, and consistently raised the issue of the Naval Academy, noting that the community was overwhelming opposed to it.

But local officials who are a part of the Senn Naval Academy Committee in the Board of Education downtown said that it was a "done deal," as other officials begged for the crowd to "move on" and "stop beating a dead horse." The members of the above mentioned committee noted that they have met four times in closed session meetings.

But teachers, parents, and their supporters kept pushing, noting comments by Task Force members in this meeting and pass ones which they found offensive. One member had responded to a question about reading skills for applicants to the Naval Academy with an incredulous "well, they should be able to read."

"My homeroom class has twenty-four students from seventeen different countries. And during open house, the parents come in with blisters on their fingers from working all day," cried one teacher. "To say that they should know how to read, when they already can read in Nepali or Spanish is offensive. Besides, I bet you wouldn't do well in a reading test in Nepali."

Another teacher was offended by a member's comment about the size of the room where the meeting was taking place, who had snarled "And we thought Senn was bad." And she conjured up a past statement by one of the members who had called Senn a "dumping ground for immigrants."

While Horan tried to refocus the discussion on other issues, Smith was ridiculed for listening to business interests like the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce over the interests of those directly involved.

The meeting convened after one and a half hours, with one community member proposing that the Task Force seek a moratorium on the Naval Academy until there could be more discussion and local participation in the process.

Task Force members left the meeting feeling that it had failed in its core objectives, as activists, teachers, and parents with the Save Senn Coalition were confident that they would be able to roll-back the decision.




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