Chicago 'Military' Public Schools Draw Mixed Reaction

Chicago Public Schools is allowing the United States military to run four of its schools. The decision is raising question about what involvement, if any, the armed forces should have in educating Chicago's children. The relative of a middle-schooler who currently attends one of the city's military education programs, is joined by a vocal critic of the concept. They share differing views.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, we're going to talk about hard choices. The Mocha Moms grapple with the latest health news about staph infection and cold medicine. CNN's Anderson Cooper on the tough choices we face on the environment. And a rock star talks about the price he paid for opening his mouth about his politics.

But first, we want to talk about choices in education. Chicago's public school system is in the middle of a radical restructuring. Its top brass have a plan: 100 new high-performing schools before the year 2010, some of them magnet schools, some of them charter schools. Five of them are run by the U.S. military. The Marine Corps runs the newest public military school. It joins three schools under the guidance of the Army, and one run by the Navy. If the district starts the school with the Air Force, as officials hope to do in 2009, Chicago will be the only city with public schools run by the four major branches of the armed services.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley supports the military public schools, but we wanted to know what parents have to say. So we're joined by James Simmons. His 14-year-old niece Renee attends a middle school program run by the Marines. Also joining us is Darlene Gramigna. She has an eight grader in a non-military public school, and she runs a group called Truth in Recruitment.

Welcome to you both.

Ms. DARLENE GRAMIGNA (Director, Truth in Recruitment): Thank you.

Mr. JAMES SIMMONS: You're quite welcome.

MARTIN: Mr. Simmons, why were you attracted to the school that you chose for your niece? What makes it different?

Mr. SIMMONS: I believe that there's a concerted interest in each individual that decides to go to the academy. I think that the structure and the developmental factors that the military can provide to the students is excellent. I am a former paratrooper from the United States Army, and going into the service, I was drafted. It sort of straightened me out, gave me a focus, and gave me a mission and a direction. And my niece is - at her age, she's not a bad child. I think that her responsibilities wavered a lot because she plays a lot, and I think this will be a very, very good program for her to give her guidance and direction and some discipline, as well as teach her how to do responsibilities.

MARTIN: Did she wants to go, or did you have to, shall we say, coax her?

Mr. SIMMONS: No, she wanted to. When she got the paperwork, talking about it, and she called me and asked me what did I think. And asked her, what do you think? She said, I think I'd like to try it. I said, well, then, you should go for it.

MARTIN: Darlene, what' so wrong? The military runs schools on military basis. Nobody has required to go to these schools. You can transfer out. What's so terrible?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: I think what we object to is just the whole recruitment aspect of it, the whole JROTC program and the whole ROTC program, you know, basically were formed as recruitment tools.

MARTIN: What is the JROTC program?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: It's the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. That's a program in high school. The ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training program is the college program. And I think what we like to see is public education be public education, and then if people later decided to join the military, then, you know, those things happen. But I think what we'd like to see is basic education that includes leadership and discipline and all those things, but don't have to be under the guise of military.

MARTIN: But if they were - there are charter schools that have all kinds different professional focuses. I mean, I know we have them here in Washington. There are schools that focus on careers in health. There are schools that focus on careers in business. Do you object to any focus on a career path, or is it just the military that you object to?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: I don't object to any kind of career path. What I'm not looking for is corporations running schools or branches of the service running schools where that's the only thing you can deal with. I think in high school, a student should be exposed to many different possibilities.

MARTIN: Mr. Simmons, do you think that the service is trying to recruit your niece?

Mr. SIMMONS: I didn't get that sense from the meetings I had attended and the orientation. I felt and what I got from that was that it was a voluntary thing. If you wanted to do it, you could do it if you qualified. It's not a thing that you can just - a program you can just automatically be in. You have to qualify. Not one time did I hear them say that you had to be enlisted once you finish your school. What I did hear them say is that we hope that each one of these students go to college, and then at some point in time if they decide to go into the military, it would be a good thing.

MARTIN: Ms. Gramigna, do you think that you would have as strong feelings about as you do if it were not for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: Well, I think it adds a whole another dimension to say that there's an 80 percent chance that someone who's enlists now would go to Iraq. So there are peace times soldiers, and there are wartimes soldiers, and, you know, to put any of these young high school students in harm's way would not -I don't think anybody would agree to that.

MARTIN: I guess I have to press the question. Is the issue that you object to the military as a career path for young people?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: No. We don't object to the military as a career path for young people. We just object to it starting so early. And, you know, one of the thing we know, and I think the school system knows, too, is that in 1916, the junior officer training program was included in part of the National Defense Act, just to train and prepare high and college students for Army service. So, you know, it may be pitched as leadership and discipline now, but I think its ultimate purpose is, you know, its design was clear when it was enacted.

MARTIN: But what's so terrible if that's - that is a career path, like others, like career in health or like a career in the law or in business or something? Do you see my question?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: I think a life-threatening career path at this historic moment is something that I would certainly stir my teenager away from.

MARTIN: Mr. Simmons, what do you think about what Miss Gramigna has to say? She's just concerned that this is indoctrination.

Mr. SIMMONS: I disagree with that wholeheartedly. I believe that the choice is the student's. And from what I got from the orientation and from what I've got from several other meetings is that the student has the choice. And given the fact the way things are today, there's not a lot of choices that the students have - specifically, African-American kids. The family structure has been broken down. There's no fathers. There's no grandfathers. Very few families in the Afro-American race have fathers or grandfathers that they can turn to.

We have a lot of kids who are 11 and 12, 7 and 8, actually, who are running amuck out here. So if they are not given a choice - a different choice, now - I think that with the structure and the guidance of the military I think will bring reality to what's going on to their relationship in life right now.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about public schools being run by the U.S. military. And we're speaking with two parents in Chicago with different views.

Miss Gramigna, what about what Mr. Simmons has to say, that these academies offer a structure, discipline, that may be lacking in students' lives in other context, and that this is something that they need or could benefit from?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: What I do agree with it is that the school system is sorely lacking in terms of providing leadership and discipline for students. And I just believe that some of the money that goes into the military academies could be better spent building up some of the community schools that people attend already. Because a lot of our money is put into researches for the Marine Academy to rehab the building that it's in so that it's a very good looking school, where those resources might well go into some of the community high school so that everybody could get a more basic education.

MARTIN: Okay. But doesn't, again, Miss Gramigna, that speak to the question of this is not something that you value or think highly of, and that perhaps other parents, if they value that, shouldn't they have a choice about having access to that kind of education?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: The choice people want is a good quality education for their children, and I think everyone's looking around to see what does the Chicago school system have to offer. And I think this is what they're putting forward as their best. And I think we have a better school system to offer students.

MARTIN: Mr. Simmons, you raised the question of race. You said in - some communities don't have the structure that you feel that best benefits these children. There is a concern by some activists that these schools tend to be in, like, largely minority communities, and there is a concern that they are targeting minority youth. Is that a concern of yours?

Mr. SIMMONS: Not really. And the reason why I say that is because there is no structure in the young Afro-American - young men today, as opposed to what it was 20 years ago. The average young guy today thinks that gold chains, you know, fast car and quick money is the way to go.

Today, their value is distorted. I think it's misguided and misdirected. And they have a choice here. You look at the school systems in the northern suburbs, the western suburbs. They have all the modern technology which we don't have in the black community or in the other minority communities, and there's a reason for that.

And the reason for that is a lot of parents today in these communities that are disinvested do not stand up. You go to a all-white school, the parents were there at the PTA meeting. Report card day, the parents are there. If something is going on, the parents, they stand up and they rally. We don't have that in some of our communities.

MARTIN: And you're African-American yourself?

MR. SIMMONS: Yes, I am.

MARTIN: Ms. Gramigna, what do you say about that?

MS. GRAMIGNA: You know, there is a difficulty within various communities about having parents and grandparents support, but I think that's where schools can provide some of that. You know, in terms of the African-American population, there's a decline in enrollment in the military by 38 percent, and part of the reason why the Army has a hard time making its recruitment goals. So I think the African-American, often, community looks at the options, you know. Do we want to have our people live and die in Iraq or Afghanistan?

MARTIN: I'm take it you're not African-American.

MS. GRAMIGNA: I'm not.

MARTIN: The numbers you cite saying that the willingness of African-Americans to enlist, wouldn't that suggest that people are very clear-eyed about their choices?

MS. GRAMIGNA: Well, when you realize the purpose of the school is to, you know, encourage people to join, I'm not sure why that would be the - that would be the purpose of a public school system, is to encourage teens to join the military.

MR. SIMMONS: I just like to say I sort of disagree there. I have not heard anything of encouragement or trying to give the students - specifically my niece any direction as to where she should go when she finished college.

MARTIN: Mr. Simmons, though, wouldn't it be logical to assume that the purpose of sponsoring the school would be to offer a positive impression of military life, and thereby to expose people to that life who might not otherwise be aware of it and thereby to encourage - particularly the outstanding students -to consider military service as an option?

MR. SIMMONS: I have no problem…

MARTIN: That seems to be logical, wouldn't it?

MR. SIMMONS: Yeah, it's logical, and I have no problem with that. I think they're giving them a choice. It goes back to that again. There's another option. Either you want them - you can become an officer, go to officer candidate school where you learn leadership and become a manager. And when you leave the service, those same skills and experiences follow you. So it's not a bad thing, but it's still the choice that the student has that they can make is not forced upon them.

MARTIN: Ms. Gramigna, a final word to you.

Ms. GRAMIGNA: Just to say that, you know, I think when minorities join the military, many of them become the combat troops as opposed to the officers, and so in that case, I would be concerned about any high school student that was being encouraged to join the military at any time.

MARTIN: But at the end of the day, though, that speaks to your objection to the military, doesn't it? Isn't that the root of your objection?

Ms. GRAMIGNA: It's one of my objections. My other objection is to a public school system that doesn't provide all the resources without having it being done onto the guise of the military.

MARTIN: Darlene Gramigna has an eighth grader. She runs the Truth in Recruitment program, which opposes letting the military into schools. We were also joined by James Simmons. His 14-year-old niece, Renee, attends a program run by the Marines.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MR. SIMMONS: You're welcome.

Ms. GRAMIGNA: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we're going to follow up on this story tomorrow. We'll hear from someone who spent a lot of time watching, listening and studying the effects of military involvement in public schools.

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