Elgin Area School District U-46's proposal to create new high school academies or career pathways is causing angst among some parents.
Several parents and school board members voiced concerns Monday night about the district mandating pathways on all students, potentially offering training for military careers, and whether these pathways would come at the expense of the arts, such as music and band classes.
New academies could be established for the freshman class of 2020-21 and enroll 400 to 600 students each.
Among the ideas being vetted is an academy for government, public administration and safety, including a Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program, which drew criticism from parents. An informational session on that proposal is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday in Room 130 at Bartlett High School, 701 W. Schick Road.
District officials have said the military might offer a pathway to a college education for some students.
"I feel that it's part of the increasing militarization of our whole society and I find that very troubling," said Mary Shesgreen of Elgin. "ROTC, like the military, has an authoritarian structure. That does the opposite of teaching students to think for themselves. It teaches them conformity and obedience."
Shesgreen said ROTC will lead to military recruitment targeting minorities and low-income students who don't have other options.
"We need to get out there and fight for free public colleges and universities for these kids," she said. "They deserve the full richness of life without being put in these narrow pathways that we have allowed them."
Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford of Elgin questioned whether administrators and board members have considered the moral and ethical implications of giving children military weapons training in a school setting, as well as the legal ramifications and liabilities.
"In most ROTC programs, in addition to learning marching, military history and behavior, most students are given marksmen training in which they learn to shoot military style weapons by practicing with air rifles," she said.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter who fatally shot 17 people in Parkland, Florida, in February had received such training through his school's junior ROTC program, Brumbaugh-Cayford said.
"Firing air guns that contribute to airborne lead is also an issue in JROTC settings that often are in high school cafeterias and gyms without adequate ventilation to handle the minute lead particulates that are thrown off when air rifles are shot," she said. "School buildings then become contaminated by lead fragments that are tracked through the school as children and staff walk through the areas where shooting occurs."
Officials said more than 55 school districts nationwide have moved to career academies aligned to business and industry needs.
School board member Sue Kerr said making students choose a pathway in middle school might be too early.
Board member Melissa Owens suggested college prep academies at each high school instead of forcing students to choose pathways.
"There's 14,000 districts in the country," Owens said. "We are talking about a very small percent of districts that are doing this (pathways) work."
Board member Phil Costello said he is excited about offering students more career choices.
"I'm kind of excited about the return on investment of what we are doing here," he said. "I think this is a good starting point. We are telling our community what it means to be successful."