Political solicitation is not allowed on Albuquerque Public Schools campuses. Military-based organizations are not considered political, says Rigo Chavez, APS spokesperson.
Those are the first two facts to consider before diving into a months-long debate waged by the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) regarding equal access to high school students facing choices about their futures. Schools receiving federal funding are required to allow the military access to campuses under No Child Left Behind laws.
SWOP underwent serious scrutiny before being given permission by the school district to approach Albuquerque High with the possibility of setting up a table during lunch hour to distribute information on alternatives to the military. The Alibi first wrote about SWOP's struggle to get space on campus at the end of May ["Military Brats," May 31-June 6, 2007].
Armed with a pamphlet about scholarship opportunities in New Mexico, the lottery scholarship and what students need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, staff from the organization showed up at Albuquerque High earlier this month. "After a year of obstacles and challenges," SWOP was turned away, says Monica Cordova, youth coordinator. Administrators told Cordova they couldn't go ahead with the SWOP table that day because of extenuating circumstances.
What circumstances? Well, coincidentally, SWOP showed up for their scheduled tabling on Thursday, Dec. 6, the same day a Journal article appeared regarding Albuquerque High parents angry about a mandatory assembly the previous day called “Planning for Life.” It was a veiled military recruiting assembly, the parents said, the kind they thought they had protected their children from by filling out a form saying they didn't want their mailing address given to recruiters.
In Cordova's mind, Thursday was the perfect day to allow SWOP on campus. "I started calling Albuquerque High," she says. " 'Here was your opportunity to counter,' ” she told administrators. "They didn't want to look like they were countering anything."
APS Spokesperson Chavez says Planning for Life is not a military-based organization. A small logo on the bottom left-hand corner of each page of Planning for Life's website (www.planningforlife.com) reads: "Brought to you by U.S. Army." Senior Hannah McGrew described the assembly as "absolutely crazy." When McGrew heard there was a mandatory assembly for seniors that day, she assumed it was going to have something to do with caps and gowns or graduation requirements. "I sit down, and this big old guy in army fatigues is up on the stage as soon as I get in. He starts talking about sacrifice," she says.
Emil Hill, who handles the day-to-day operations of Planning for Life, says the presentations are not designed to generate interest in the military and that, usually, the officers who deliver the exercise portion of the program are not dressed in fatigues. "The Army not only has an interest and obligation to recruit young people but also to help young people be prepared no matter what path they choose in life," Hill says.
High school students are no longer given much advice on physical fitness and are at a disadvantage to stay healthy, Hill adds. Planning For Life is also connected to March 2 Success, billed as a free tool to help students prepare for standardized testing. "The average high school student in most urban centers can't afford to pay for standardized test-taking training," Hill says. "Those classes generally cost about $700 apiece."
In a letter to APS, Albuquerque High parents expressed concern that Planning for Life targets underprivileged students. "... It is clear that the military targets ethnic minority teenagers and 'less advantaged' communities for recruiting," it reads. The Planning for Life assembly was held at Albuquerque High, Rio Grande, Highland and Manzano, according to Chavez. But Chavez says the assembly didn't make the rounds of Albuquerque high schools with concentrations of low-income or high-minority numbers. "Highland High School is our most diverse school," he says.
Chavez says he heard from concerned parents after the assembly and referred them back to Albuquerque High's administration. Principal Tim McCorkle met with SWOP and concerned parents last week and apologized for the situation, says Cordova. He was out of town when SWOP was denied access to campus, she says. McCorkle and other administrators at Albuquerque High did not respond to the Alibi's phone calls as of press time.
Cordova says if Planning For Life went through the same extensive process SWOP went through to get permission to show up on campus, it might have been clearer as to what the assembly was going to be about. As it stands, Planning for Life only had to contact the high school, whereas SWOP had to get all of its materials approved by the school district before being given permission to start talking to Albuquerque High. "APS has to come up with some more solid, concrete policies that don't put schools in a bind," says Cordova, "where the rules are enforced across the board."