The Chicago Experiment
Monday, the Chicago Public School (CPS) system dedicated the city's first high school run by the U.S. Marine Corps. Ceremonies at the Marine Military Academy, located on Chicago's Near West Side, came a few days after the school system announced plans to open an Air Force-themed academy during the 2009 school year. When that school starts operations, Chicago will be the only city with four high school "military academies" (one for each branch of service), plus Junior ROTC detachment at more than three dozen other schools. All told, CPS operates the largest Junior ROTC program of any school system in the country.
For city school officials, the rationale for creating the military academies is clear. As the Chicago Tribune reports:
District officials say the military-themed schools give students more choices and provide an opportunity to enroll in schools that provide structure, discipline and a focus on leadership. They say the schools emphasize academics, not recruitment.
We have to think outside the box, and what existed before simply did not work for far too many students," said Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan. "These schools are popular and have waiting lists, so that tells me parents want more of them."
In fact, the military academies are so popular that the school system received 7,000 applications last year for the 700 available slots. The service academies are located in poor neighborhoods, and many parents and students welcome the structured, disciplined environment provided by the new schools. All of the military academies offer a college prep curriculum, and the Marine Academy will offer internships with the Chicago-based Argonne National Laboratories, offering additional learning opportunities for students interested in science and math.
Not surprisingly, the school system's embrace of Junior ROTC and military academies doesn't sit well with anti-war activists and certain members of the education establishment. They claim that the program is little more than a thinly-veiled recruiting effort that "unfairly" targets minority youngsters. A Fox News report on the Marine Academy's opening featured interviews with two "activists" that recited those familiar (but false) charges.
First of all, anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Junior ROTC program knows that it is aimed at building better citizens, not producing a new generation of military recruits. While each JROTC program is run by retired officers and NCOs, their instruction emphasizes self-respect, discipline, teamwork, and individual responsibility, within a military setting.
And there's little evidence that Chicago's military schools and JROTC detachments are producing a flood of enlistees for local armed forces recruiters. According to figures cited in the Fox News report, only about 7% of the students currently enrolled in Chicago's JROTC programs--including the service academies--enlist in the military after high school. It's a figure that's consistent with figures postulated by Dr. David Segal of the University of Maryland and other researchers. More than a decade ago, Dr. Segal calculated that 6-8% of high school males represent the group most likely to enlist. Segal's data--and anecdotal information from the CPS--indicate that Chicago's military schools and JROTC programs will never be the fertile "recruiting ground" claimed by anti-war protesters.
As for critics within the education bureaucracy, they fret that the military academies lag behind other schools on achievement tests, and in the number of students that go on to college. According to the Tribune, pass rates on the 2006 Illinois high school state exam ranged from 9 to 30 percent, below the Chicago average of 32%. None of the military academies met federal No Child Left Behind testing standards last year. However, there is a certain irony in that comparison. Supporters of traditional educational programs typically downplay the importance of state and federal testing, or claim the standards are unobtainable. But, they become a convenient bludgeon for targeting military schools, viewed as a threat to the education status quo.
But supporters of the schools point out--correctly--that the service academies are fairly new and need time to jel. Additionally, critics fail to note that the military schools are much more orderly and disciplined than the failing institutions they replaced, with lower rates of absenteeism, truancy and school violence. Over time, the disciplinary foundation being established at the service academies will produce an education environment that fosters learning and higher scores on achievement tests. More importantly, the students, parents and teachers involved with the service academies genuinely want to be there, creating a sense of ownership and dedication that is also essential for success.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley expressed similar expectations at Monday's dedication ceremony for the Marine Military Academy. "Be not afraid of the criticism you have," Daley said. "You get stronger because of the criticism against the military academies, because you are going to outperform."
It's somewhat rare for us to agree with a Democrat, but Mayor Daley got it right. Military academies don't represent a single solution for the nation's public education woes, but in the right environment--and with the backing of school officials and politicians--they can make a difference. That's why Chicago's bold experiment deserves continued support--and a chance to succeed.