Military high schools and charters dominate 'CPS High School Fair'... Chicago High Schools Fair draws thousands despite, costs, barriers, and confusing information

The day after President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to win a Nobel Peace Prize since Jimmy Carter (2002), Obama’s home town of Chicago featured its massive military side in an unusual venue: the city’s annual public “High Schools Fair,” on October 10, 2009

Some students and parents could have been forgiven if they thought that the annual Chicago Public Schools 'High School Fair' at McCormick Place on October 10, 2009 was actually a recruiting fair to get their eighth grade children to enroll in one of the city's six military high schools (or larger number of Junior ROTC — JROTC — programs). The largest booth at the entrance to the schools section of the Fair was devoted to the city's six military public high schools. In addition to the general booth, each of the six military high schools had its own little booth as well. By contrast, the city's general high schools, which educate the majority of the city's high school students, had no separate section, nor did the city's most successful high schools — the 'Academic Magnet College Prep' high schools (which were scattered across the sprawling convention center floor). As a result, it was much easier for children to find and 'choose' the military programs than it was to find even the most prestigious college programs and schools. Even Michelle Obama's alma mater, Whitney Young Magnet High School, was overshadowed by the military high schools' marketing. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Thousands of elementary school children and their parents braved heavy traffic and the severe costs of parking to attend the Chicago Public Schools ‘High Schools Fair’ at McCormick Place convention center on the day of the event. There was no official estimate of the number of people attending as of October 11, 2009, when this article went to the Web.

The annual CPS High Schools Fair, which was held all the way in the East Building adjacent to Lake Michigan, was held from 9:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., according to the CPS Office of Communications, which issued an announcement regarding the event the day before it was scheduled.

The Fair is supposed to give elementary school children and their families a chance to sample the choices they have for high schools in Chicago’s public school system. Chicago has promoted its version of school reform as filled with 'choice.'

But a closer look at the deployment of the high schools that were offering choices to Chicago children showed that the Fair's planners made sure they featured certain choices — like Chicago’s six military high schools and charter high schools — prominently, while relegating the rest of the city’s public high schools to the back of the line.

Even Chicago's 'Air Force Academy' high school, which had only been in operation for six weeks as of October 10, 2009, had its own booth. And the 'Air Force Academy' was in a location far more accessible than most of the city's traditional public high schools. In fact, many of the city's traditional high schools, some more than 75 years old, had little or no presence at the 'High School Fair' and Substance has been told that they were ordered to keep their presentations at bare bones. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Even the city’s nine “college prep” academic magnet high schools were downplayed, while many of the city’s general high schools were either ignored or left early. The majority of Chicago’s high school students still attend the city’s general public high schools or the 'college prep' high schools, despite more than a decade of neglect (or outright hostility) by the Daley administration and the officials of the Chicago Public Schools (who are appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley).

Two vast rooms

The High Schools Fair was divided into two vast rooms at the east side of the sprawling convention center. The first room contained exhibitions of the various careers programs available at certain CPS high schools. Eleven general high schools are now hosting what are being called 'College and Career Academies' (what used to be vocational education). Although no particular high school was noted on the signs in that space, there were high schools in the 'College and Career Academy' section which were not listed as having official 'College and Career' academies (such as Chicago Vocational and Julian), while at least one high school that supposedly has two college and career academis (Fenger) was difficult to locate. Students and families walking into the CPS Fair (after pushing through crowds farther west in the convention center registering for the October 11 Chicago Marathon) were greeted with an impressive array of demonstrations of CPS training programs, ranging from traiditional ones (like what was once called “auto shop”) to more recent additions (computers).

Main room entry: Celebration of CPS militarization

Carver Military Academy High School had a larger booth than Whitney Young Magnet High School and Northside College Prep High School combined. No mention was made of the recent international controversy over whether the militarization of Carver, which had been a general high school for 35 years serving the Altgeld Gardens public housing project, had contributed to the murder of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert on September 24, 2009. Carver teachers and staff didn't discuss that matter at the High Schools Fair, promoting their program energetically all morning. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The second room contained booths for all of the city’s high schools, as well as places to obtain other information. But the most dramatic booth in the main room made the Fair look like a U.S. Military recruiting center: The city’s six “military high schools” had centralized their marketing in one large booth, surrounded by smaller booths, one for each of the six military high schools that Chicago has created since 1998.

The military main booth was also the best equipped. While even some of the city’s most prestigious public high schools were squeezed into small booths and forced to make due with printed handouts, the military main booth featured continuous streaming video as well as numerous photographs highlighting the various activities of the military high schools. By contrast, Whitney Young Magnet High School, which is the alma mater of First Lady Michelle Obama, has less than one-tenth the space as the military display.

Charter schools prominent

Like the military high schools, the growing number of charter high schools received much more prominence on October 10 at McCormick Place than the city's general high schools — or even the city's prestigious college prep magnet high schools. Above, staff and students from the Noble Street charter schools flank Noble Street director Michael Milkie promoting their product line at the High Schools Fair. The Noble Street sign does not mention that the school is a charter school, not a regular public school. From the beginning, as Substance has reported, Noble Street has sent its rejected students to nearby Wells High School. Noble Street founder and chief Michael Milkie was once a teacher at Wells, and still uses Wells as a dumping ground for the Noble Street rejects. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Chicago’s charter high schools (more than a dozen at this point) were also prominently on display, with each booth generally well staffed right up to the Fair's end. Although the heavily promoted expansion of charter schools in Chicago over the past ten years has been focused on the elementary schools, by 2009 a number of charter operators had also been awarded 'campuses' to operate charter high schools as well. Under Chicago's peculiar interpretation of the charter school law, any group that held a charter was allowed to expand via the creation of an unlimited number of 'campuses.' A 'campus' in Chicago is in effect a separate and free-standing school, but Chicago's interpretation of the charter school law allowed this 'campus' expansion. The result was that by October 2009, on Chicago charter operator had more than a dozen 'campuses' spread over a distance of more than 20 miles across Chicago, but was viewed as one 'school.'

One of the most prominent booths was the Noble Street Charter School Network, which has been the most prominent of the charter schools in establishing high schools across the city. The ASPIRA charter schools were also prominent, with booths for both the Aspira Mirta Ramirez charter high school and the Aspira ‘Early College’ charter high school. Other charter schools were equally visible.

General high schools left at the back of the bus

Chicago’s nearly 40 general high schools were clearly at the back of the bus as far as the assignment of spaces at the Fair was concerned. While the military high schools had been strategically placed at the very entrance to the main room and the charter high schools were also proiment and to the front of the room, the general high schools, which are attended by the majority of the city’s high school students, were more segregated and certainly less prominent.

One of the most impressive programs depicted in the section showcasing the 'College and Career Academies' was the Audio/Visual Technology program from Percy Julian High School (above). However, Julian High School is not one of the schools that officially had a 'College and Career Academy' for the 2008-2009 school year. Many members of the Julian community think that Julian is next to be on the Chicago Board of Education's 'Hit List' for school closings via 'Turnaround.' Chicago's controversial 'Turnaround' Chief Officer (Donald Fraynd) has been wandering the halls of Julian since the school year began. Nearby Fenger High School, which is currently in its first year of 'Turnaround', exploded in chaos throughout September 2009, culminating in the murder of Fenger junior Derrion Albert. The Fenger tragedy was caused in part because 'Turnaround' stripped Fenger of its veteran teachers and installed an unproved program under 'Turnaround' and its 'Chief Officer,' Donald Fraynd. Like all of the other high schools closed or targeted for 'Turnaround' since Arne Duncan was CEO of CPS (2001 - 2008), Julian High School is segregated: all of its students are African American, as the photo above suggests. Substance photo by George N. Schmmidt.By the time Substance arrived in the main exhibition room at roughly 12:00 p.m. (one half hour before the Expo ended), half the city’s general high schools had either left or had never been there. For hundreds of yards to the back of the room, empty booths marked with the names of the city’s general high schools could be seen. Many looked like the abandoned buildings in the communities that many of them serve. Not all of the city’s general high schools presented the demoralized face left behind by the majority, however. Percy Julian High School, which is being targeted by CPS ‘Turnaround’ Chief Officer Donald Fraynd for destruction next June, had two crews, one in the first room showing off Julian’s impressive Audio Visual program, and the second at the school’s booth far behind the military display in the main room. Teachers from Chicago vocational and other traditional high schools joined their students to provide impressive and attention grabbing displays. CVS was on display twice: in the outside room they had a truck engine, while inside the school had brought in a car that had been completely rebuilt by CVS students.

The nine college prep academic magnet high schools had large numbers of students and teachers enthusiastically promoting their cases until the very end of the show. This year, CPS has quietly removed Von Steuben High School from the list of academic magnet high schools and placed the newly opened Westinghouse High School on the list. There was no explanation from the Board of Education regarding either action.

Materials, timing, and costs

Although the High Schools Fair featureed some of the most important things parents and elementary students need to know early in the year before the children begin high school, the Fair, while detailed in many respects, also looked like it was designed to channel the children in certain directions (military schools and charter schools) and away from traditional public schools.

Traditional vocational education programs have been almost eliminated from Chicago's public high schools since the Clinton Administration began the "standards and accountability" assault on voc ed (and much else about urban public education) during the 1990s. But some urban high schools are still providing students with useful vocational training and fun as well. One of those, the 'transportation technology' (which would have once been called 'auto and truck shop') program at Chicago Vocational was being featured by teacher Miguel Rojas (above). Like the Julian and Gage Park high schools' vocational programs, the shop programs at Chicago Vocational are not part of the official "Academies" being promoted by the CPS 'Office of Academic Enhancement' this school year. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. The Fair was also very brief, running two-and-a-half hours from 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., leaving very little time for many of the people attending to visit all the booths and get all the information they might have wanted.

Problems were exacerbated by the fact that part of McCormick Place was taken up by registration for the massive Bank of America Chicago Marathon, which in itself provided some ironic moments during the day. When a reporter asked one security person how to get to the High Schools Expo, the answer was: “Follow the black people. If you’re with all those white folks, you’re at the Marathon. Just keep going past there and follow the black people and you’ll be at the high schools Fair…”

True enough. The majority of the people at the High Schools Fair were not white. The overwhelming majority of the people at the marathon were not minority.

The 200-page CPS ‘High School Directory’ was an improvement over previous years, albeit with a few flaws.

The students and staff at the booth for John Hope High School maintained their spirits throughout the event, even though they were far to the back of the huge hall, and a great distances from the charter schools and military schools that were positioned to greet those who walked in. High schools from the 'South Side' and 'Far South Side' were positioned closer to Lake Michigan than to the entrance to the huge hall. Even so, many parents and students who knew the schools they wanted to visit ignored the hoopla for the privileged schools at the entrance and carefully worked their way the quarter mile back to the 'South Side' ghetto. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The directory was available on time this year, and it included the current application families have to submit for their children to apply for those public high schools that require advance applications. The deadline for applying for all selective enrollment public schools is December 18, 2009, and the directory notes clearly: The deadline for all high school applications is December 18, 2009.

Except that it is not: the deadline for charter schools applications is whenever the charter schools want to make the deadlines. The public high schools (and programs) for which an application must be submitted include the academic magnet high schools (e.g., Whitney Young, Northside College Prep), and the newly established “College and Career Academies”, which are apparently vocational programs inside general high schools. One of the obvious problems with the applications processes is that they are contradictory. The general application clearly states that a student must apply to each high school at the high school itself:

“Mail (or hand deliver) the completed application directly to the school(s) to which you are applying. DO NOT send the application to the CPS Central Office or your Area Office. Applications cannot be sent via email or fax.”

Clear enough?

Except no.

If you are applying to the magnet high schools, you are supposed to apply to those high schools directly.

But if you are applying to a charter high school, you have to contact the charter high school, which may also have a deadline other than the December 18 deadline.

Very few of the parents and students who managed to get all the way to the High Schools Fair then got all the way back to the space where the "Far South Side" high schools were cornered. The far eastern end of the East Building has Lake Michigan for its background. Even though one of the military high schools (Carver) is farther south (at 130th St.) than Gage Park High School (above, providing information on its 'Equipment & Technology Institute'), the military schools all received favorable treatment, while the general high schools were shoved to the back of the bus, as one observer put it, literally and figuratively. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.And if you are applying to one of the new 'College and Career Academy programs inside some of the general high schools, you have to send the application to CPS Central Office, Office of Academic Enhancement, at 125 S. Clark St., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60603.

There is more. Although some of the most interesting vocational education programs featured at the Fair were indeed well represented by students and their teachers, at least three of them were not part of the "College and Career Academy" program. So if a parent thought, for example, that she was applying for her eighth grader to get into the program featuring truck engine repair and rebuilding automobiles (which is located at Chicago Vocational), she would be making a mistake to send that application in to "Academic Enhancement," because Chicago Vocational is not part of the 'College and Career Academy' program (at least as noted on the application. The same was true of the Audio Visual program from Julian High School and the technology program from Gage Park High School. Impressive displays at the High School Fair — but not part of 'College and Career Academy.'

Even Chicago's prestigious college prep high schools were relegated to small spaces without adequate promotion, as contrasted sharply with the charter high schools (most of which had no record to support their exaggerated claims) and the military high schools (most of which are providing academic records that are far below those of the college prep high schools). CPS showed the priorities of the Huberman administration clearly by the way in which the college prep public high schools and the general high schools were disrespected even in the placement of booths. The charter 'high schools' (many of them have yet to graduate one person) and the military high schools received front space and top billing, while even the top school in Barack Obama's old neighborhood was pushed off to the side in the smallest possible space. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.So it seems like you must apply to the schools at the schools unless the schools are charter schools or general high schools that contain what CPS is calling now a ‘college & career academy.’

The directory seems more accurate than in recent years. For three years, the high schools directory was directing families looking for certain schools to locations that were not where the schools were. Mirta Ramirez charter high school, for example, was re-located into the Moos elementary school building at 1911 N. California but remained listed at 2435 N. Western as late as the 2009 – 2010 directory. In the case of other high schools, the programs listed were poorly described or didn’t really exist.

Did the Huberman administration add to the sabotage of the city's regular public high schools?

Anyone viewing the way in which the High School Fair was organized and presented had to ask some 'Why' questions.

At 12:00, many of the tables were already empty, and it was not possible for an observer to know whether they had been filled earlier in the day. The event was scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. and was terminated abruptly at 12:30 after a half hour of warnings that the rooms would be shut at 12:30 precisely. Several of the small schools and charters that had received privileges from the administration of Arne Duncan at the expense of community high schools (like the 'Austin Polytechnical' whose booth was photographed at 12:00, above) either didn't bother to show up or left very early. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Despite ten years of promoting oddball versions of public schools ranging from 'small schools' to charters and military academies, the Chicago Board of Education has been unable to dislodge the city's large general high schools as the option of choice for most high school students. And it becomes clear whenever a large number of students and their parents are together that most Chicago families want good safe public schools for their children — and they want those schools to be in their communities.

Hence, the administration at Chicago Public Schools has to continue to try and funnel and force 'choice' on people from Chicago, instead of simply providing every community in Chicago with what most of Chicago's suburbs already have: decent public schools for their children. It's not only in Wilmette and Winnetka (where Rev. Senator James Meeks led protests a year ago) that children and their families have good public schools in their communities. It is most Chicago suburbs, including those serving working class families who are not as wealthy as the North Shore families whose children are destined to attend public schools like New Trier Township High School.

Teachers and students from Paul Robeson High School showed the spirit of the man after whom the school is named by persisting in their outreach despite the fact that CPS had placed them in 'Far South' at the very back of the 'bus' (so to speak). Robeson High School is one of the schools where staff suspect that Chicago Board of Education 'Turnaround' officials might be putting the school on the annual 'Hit List.' Since the Board began closing and privatizing nearby high schools in 2004 (with the elimination of Calumet High School, which was subsequently turned over to the Perspectives Charter Schools), Robeson has been taking some of the most challenging students on the city's segregated South Side while the Board has routinely deprived the school of resources. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.In Chicago, however, general high schools this year were allegedly ordered to put their worst foot forward. The general high schools — and even the college prep magnet schools — were not allowed to bring out their best. They were placed in the back, in a ghetto of sorts, while they could plainly see that prime positions were allocated to the charter schools and the military schools, even though few families wanted those as the first choice for their children. In fact, while I was photographing some of the charter school booths, children came up to me and asked how to find Lincoln Park and Lane Tech high schools. "They're probably back there somewhere," was the best answer I could offer. Beginning at 12:00 noon, a loud announcement warned the people attending the Fair that it would close at 12:30 p.m.

Students and their families leaving the Chicago high schools Fair on September 10, 2009. Contrary to claims by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman, most families do not want 'choice' but decent and safe public high schools in their own communities for their children. Only when 'choice' is forced on them or manipulated, as it has been in Chicago, are large numbers forced to choose public education beyond their own communities. As the photograph above and school board data show, Chicago is the most racially segregated city in the USA. With the recent ending of a 30 year old desegregation consent decree by the federal courts, critics are certain Chicago's minority children will face more segregation — and fewer real public school opportunities — than before. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Promptly at 12:30 p.m., the show ended, and the large doors began to close, even as many parents and students continued trying to find the high schools they were interested in. 

Final edited version of this article posted at October 11, 2009, 7:00 a.m. CDT. If you choose to reproduce this article in whole or in part, or any of the graphical material included with it, please give full credit to SubstanceNews as follows: Copyright © 2009 Substance, Inc., Please provide Substance with a copy of any reproductions of this material and we will let you know our terms — or you can take out a subscription to Substance (see red button to the right) and make a donation. We are asking all of our readers to either subscribe to the print edition of Substance (a bargain at $16 per year) or make a donation. Both options are available on the right side of our Home Page. For further information, feel free to call us at our office at 773-725-7502.


October 11, 2009 at 2:51 PM

By: John Dewey's spirit

Sabotaging public education is an attack on democracy itself...

So what else is new? The main thing to learn from this story is that the legacy of Arne Duncan is now being spread across the United States through the U.S. Department of Education behind the massive brbiery called "Race to the Top." If President Obama and Arne Duncan win this race, in five years every school district in the country will have the same kinds of silliness, hypocrisy, and sadness to show for years of following some of the worst ideas ever to hit American public schools. The faces of those students from Julian, Hope, Gage Park and King high school still show the hope for a better world promised by the promise of true public education. It's worth the fight for those young people alone to continue to work against these lies and stand up for public schools against educational snake oil salesmen (and women).

October 17, 2009 at 2:56 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

HS Fair shows CPS 'Choice' is manipulation... Cynical manipulation at that.

Manipulation isn't 'choice'.

Now that Chicago's perverse versions of public school reality have gone national, every piece of Chicago's manipulations deserves a close and then closer look.

The high school fair at McCormick Place is just one example.

Substance recently received a letter (with photograph) of a student from Austin Polytechnic demonstrating a lathe at the college and career section of the High School fair. The writer suggests that we were inaccurate by reporting nobody at the Austin Polytech table inside, in what could be called the "school-by-school" room.

That letter and photo will be published, but not as a correction. We were both accurate.

But that only highlights how bizarre the 'High School Fair' was from the point of view of the average consumer (parents; eighth grade kids).

The majority of the parents and students at the HS Fair were looking at specific schools.

As I reported, there were two rooms. The 'College and Careers' thingy was in the first room. And there it was kind of strange — viz, it was difficult to figure out which school you were looking at when you first went to 'culinary arts' or 'cosmetology'. All the schools offering those programs were lumped together, at least from a look and a review of the photographs I took.

It was in the huge second room that the problems were most pronounced, and it became clear that the layout of the school-by-school was a big part of the problem. People came wanting to learn about specific schools, for the most part. Not 'choose' a 'career' at age 12 or 13. (Reality check: Any one of the dozen or so public high schools in Chicago's most affluent suburbs offers an enormous range of choices -- curricular, extra curricular, sports, volunteer work, etc. -- in a traditional American public high school. What Chicago has been doing over the past 20 years is creating a ghetto for the poor, where 'choice' requires these bizarre twists and turns.

But back to what CPS did at McCormick Place on October 10, 2009 at its 'High School Fair.'

First, it was hard to get there, and generally expensive. Thousands went because it's so important to their children's future (how many thousands CPS hasn't said; see below).

Anyone looking for specific schools (or most programs) in the big room at the HS Fair was stumped for a number of reasons, almost all of which have to do with perverse planning.

For example, the huge banner from the ceiling advertising the military academies didn't have to be alone up there. It could have been one of 100 banners — one for each high school or high schooly thingy.

Instead, the military academies couldn't be missed, but virtually all the other schools had to be located across a space bigger than two football fields, by geography (from 'North' to 'Far South') according to the other banners hanging from the ceiling. The fact that you had to walk the farthest to get to 'Far South' could have been construed as a kind of segregation, but now that we're officially not a segregated school system...

That's another issue for another time. Assuming you knew that Brooks College Prep High School was 'Far South,' it was a ten minute walk from 'College and Careers' to Brooks, probably two blocks or more if measured in the length of city streets.

Was there a better way to help people find their way around?


The military high schools demonstrated it.

Each high school should have gotten a ceiling banner the same size as the one for the six military high schools. As I noted in the article, students were asking me how to locate schools as popular as Lane Tech and Northside College Prep -- and it was not easy. The closer you got to Lake Michigan, the thinner the crowds ('Far South').

Just to add to the spin, someone at CPS placed Carver Military Academy (in the news recently) all the way at the front (with the 'Military High Schools') rather than all the way to the rear (in 'Far South'). Carver is virtually out of Chicago, it's so far south. It's easier to get to Dolton from Carver than to get up to the next nearest high school (Fenger) as the world now knows, partly.

The event was interesting from any number of points of view. Forced 'choice' is not really choice, despite all the propaganda rhetoric. The real word for what CPS has been doing since Arne Duncan began these ruthless expansions of the military and charter schools is manipulation. It was evident both on Saturday October 10 at McCormick Place and in reviewing what I saw (in photographs) since.

Take this one example:

By any way of measuring, CPS has some of the 'best' public high schools in the USA. Whitney Young, Lincoln Park, Northside, and some others are constantly at the 'top' by any measure. And others (e.g., Steinmetz, because of that IB program) get listed in that strange Newsweek 'top high schools' edition every year.

But if you walked into McCormick Place on October 10, there was no ceiling banner proclaiming 'Some of the best high schools in the USA'. There was one drawing you to the military high schools. And, as noted, not ceiling banner at all for 95 percent of the high schools, making the job of locating them very difficult, especially after the lines got packed around the tables. (The signs that were there were at shoulder height, at best).

I'm still waiting for CPS ('Communications') to give me a firm number about how many people attended. It's been five days since I made that call (they were not answering at 553-1620 over the weekend, and Monique Bond doesn't answer any of our emails).

We're going to continue covering this huge story through December 18 (deadline for some applications) and beyond. Maybe CPS is not trying to steer 8th graders into the military high schools and the charters, but CPS is certainly making it difficult for parents without patience and a lot of resources (and maybe a sense of humor) to locate accurate information on 'choices' available for their children.

As to the thousands of children in foster care or with parents who are working too many hours to do this Rubick's Cube of 'choice' CPS has set up...

They're on their own. CPS is making it more and more difficult every year for the average person to 'choose' beyond the channeling CPS is obviously doing.

In Chicago at least, 'choice' is a code word for the cynical manipulation of poor people.

October 20, 2009 at 3:34 PM

By: Devonna


George,\r\rAll of the Selective Enrollment Schools were placed under one Banner listing their schools. They were located to the right of the Military Academies. How could you have missed that?

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