Protest at Senn

Vol. XV No. 2 - FALL 2004

On Tuesday, October 5, 2004, students, parents, community members and teachers gathered in the Senn High School auditorium at 5900 N. Glenwood to learn about a proposed plan to change Senn. The program is to take a part of the school and turn it into a Naval Academy for high school students. Attendees were asked to sign in and receive literature about Senn High School. Students gathered in the entrance hall with signs saying SAVE SENN in many languages. These signs were an indication of the contention over the plan that had been introduced to some community residents and teachers just a few weeks before this meeting.

The first speaker, Alderman Mary Ann Smith, began the meeting by citing her involvement in bringing the tool and die program to the school and she indicated there was a possibility for a nursing program. She cited the school capacity for 2800 students and the current enrollment of 1767. She described some of the benefits of a Naval Academy which, she reported, has a 98.1% graduation rate where it is operating currently in other public schools.

The next speaker was Dave Perkins from the Chicago Public Schools. He stated that his purpose was to dispel rumors and report the facts. This was interrupted by a man who said “We don’t want children to die in a war.” As students milled around the auditorium with signs saying “books not war” and “No NAVY” and “Save diversity - Save Senn” the speaker attempted to introduce some facts. He said that the program at Senn would ultimately serve 600 students. Other schools with this program include a school in Bronzeville, Carver and Orr. He reported that these programs are “not about recruiting.” At this point, a man at the rear of the auditorium said “Military has no place in a high school,” which was cheered.

Principal Judy Hernandez stepped up to speak to the assembly asking for quiet so that a presentation could be shown. She said that then there would be time for comments from the community. The crowd quieted down but more signs appeared throughout the auditorium as people continued to enter and walk around.

When the military representative, Rick Mills, went to the podium, the crowd became noisy again. He reported that there were 11,000 young people in this program nationwide. A loud voice yelled “No More War.” As Mills tried to continue, the shouting began “We say no.” There was a plan to show a video about the program so, while the chanting continued, the program was introduced and presented. The chant continued “We say no.” Another plea was made for quiet. The audience responded by chanting “We say no” and standing to turn their backs to the video presentation. The shouting continued and most of the auditorium was standing facing the back. Signs were raised and the audience cheered as the presenters left the auditorium.

Other attempts were made for quiet in the auditorium so that community input could be heard and translated. A Senn teacher took the microphone and gained some quiet as he reported that the principal, teachers and students have known about this plan for 13 days. Though the actual plan was never presented at this assembly, a flyer for the event enumerated the changes that the proposed Naval Academy program would require. According to some teachers who were in the auditorium, the video and plan had been presented to them and to some community block club presidents the previous week. Opposition was voiced at those meetings. With no chance to get more information at this public assembly, the community members in attendance were left in the dark. Some in attendance said they felt like it was a “done deal.” Others said that the method of proposing a change in a neighborhood high school drew the most ire. It was clear from the comments in the audience that not enough information was available and that more meetings must follow.

Some order returned to the room and community members spoke in support of the protest, Save Senn - Save our Diversity. A flyer handed out at the meeting stated that the students who attend Senn have been born in 70 different countries, that the number of languages spoken at the school was 57 and that 1111 students speak a language other than English as their home language, 64.6 percent of the student body. It is this diversity of Senn students that is both its strength and its challenge.

Since the October 5th meeting, more meetings have been scheduled and more comments have been printed in the Lerner News and the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Board of Education held a hearing on November 29th where both sides stated their positions. On December 15th the Board of Ed. announced it had approved the proposal to establish the Chicago Naval Academy High School in Senn’s building to open in September 2005.

Editor’s note: This account and others will be archived at the museum.