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Battle Lines Drawn On Military School

Magnet Plan Has Opponents Arguing Whether Program Would Build Character Or Exploit Lower-Income Students

December 4, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Picture this: Hartford middle and high school students standing at attention in formation for morning roll call, walking quietly in single file through school hallways, addressing their teachers as `Sir' and `Ma'am' and sporting neatly pressed military uniforms.

Child soldiers?

Military school. A public military magnet school.

It's a school that the new superintendent of schools, Steven J. Adamowski, says the district should consider. Ditto for Mayor Eddie A. Perez, chairman of the school board, who also suggests a role for boot camp, a residential reform school and perhaps some other residential magnet school if funding can be identified.

Beyond Hartford, the idea has caught the attention of educators in some urban districts seeking to find a way to impose a sense of order and discipline among children who often lead chaotic lives at home.

"The idea is to put them into schools with high expectations and standards of behavioral norms that spill into other areas of their lives," said Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at Teachers College at Columbia University and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education based at Columbia.

But what some see as a path to order, others see as exploitation.

Dave Ionno, a Vietnam veteran who lectures students in Hartford about the realities of war, says it's immoral to place military schools in poor cities where children are desperate for resources to pay for college.

"Do you think Glastonbury is going to get a military school?" Ionno asked. "Let the poor kids do the dying. It's the same old story."

City Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the mother of the lead plaintiff in the court case to desegregate Hartford schools, shares Ionno's concerns.

"The thought of a military school is scary to me," Horton Sheff said.

"Even with the National Guard," she said, "you sign up, think you're going to get a college education and defend our shores and the next thing you know you're in Baghdad."

The debate comes at a unique moment in American history. The post-Sept. 11 mood, combined with a spotlight on troubled urban youths and the challenges in improving their academic achievement, creates fertile terrain for the structure offered by military academies, experts say.

At the same time, many are beginning to question the fairness about who is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. A week before Thanksgiving, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said he would introduce legislation to reinstitute the draft.

"As long as Americans are being shipped off to war, then everyone should be vulnerable, not just those who, because of economic circumstances, are attracted by lucrative enlistment bonuses and educational incentives," Rangel said in a statement.

A Touchy Subject

While private military academies have long been a fixture of the educational terrain, public academies are a relatively new phenomenon.

Franklin Military Academy in Richmond, Va., was the first public military school to open in 1980, and more sprang up in the 1990s. There are about a dozen public military schools in the nation.

Structure, small class sizes and the development of leadership skills and pride are the major benefits that military schools trumpet. Strict rules are set for hair styles, uniforms, accessories, posture and language. Several military schools have Saturday school, too. Students who defy their teachers or military instructors find themselves shoveling sand, doing pushups or performing other physical tasks.

Some schools, such as the Toole Military Magnet Academy in Charleston Heights, S.C., require students to attend a special summer camp before their first year at the school to learn military vocabulary, drills, marching and saluting skills.

But although there is a military theme, Col. Joseph Dawson, the commandant at Toole, says academics are the main focus. The classes are taught by certified teachers, and students are encouraged to continue their education after high school.

"We do not steer them toward the military," Toole said. "We encourage them to go to college."

The school has yet to graduate its first class, so Toole could not say how many students were going on to the military.

A military theme for a school is fraught with so much controversy that even those who say it's worth a try make a point of saying they wouldn't necessarily encourage students to attend - they simply think it should be available to students and parents who do want it.

Levin said the idea of military schools doesn't appeal to him personally, "but if it does good things for the kids, we need to explore it."

"If this builds up the ability to work in a structured environment and improves their employment prospects and decreases their prospects of exposure to drugs and alcohol," Levin said, "then you have to weigh the risks against the benefits."

In Oakland, left-leaning Jerry Brown, former governor of California, opened a military charter school called the Oakland Military Institute College Preparatory Academy in 2001 when he was Oakland's mayor.

The move was hotly debated, with some residents complaining the school was simply preparing cannon fodder for the war in Iraq, Levin said. "[Brown] said `these kids need discipline; they need self-respect and respect by others. This is one way to get them into a school where they can have success,'" Levin said.

Adamowski, who wants to eliminate the disparities between neighborhood schools and magnet schools, said one way to do that is to create more choices in the city. A military-themed academy won't be a cure-all, he said, but it should be an option for parents to consider.

"I do not want to be typed as a proponent of a particular type of school," Adamowski said when asked to explain the benefits of military schools. "Please don't make me the military commander of high schools. I have even more interest in Montessori schools."

Perez took a similar approach.

"It's like the performing arts model or the classical academy model," he said, referring to other magnet schools in the city. "A military academy is another model we should be looking at."

Adamowski is not sure which branch of the military he might affiliate the school with, though he suggested that an affiliation with the Air Force could enable the city to develop a school for science and aviation and tap into the resources at Brainard Airport.

Sam Saylor, president of the district's PTO presidents' council, and Hyacinth Yennie, an outspoken parent, both enthusiastically endorsed the concept of a military school, saying it would expose students to careers in police and firefighting, the FBI and other public-service jobs.

"I love the idea. So many of our children need the discipline and structure. They wander the streets or the halls in these large schools all day," Yennie said. "They need to be in an environment where there are rules and they are enforced. Kids like structure. We want to prepare them with life skills."

Passionate Objections

Opponents of the idea are equally passionate.

They question all that the schools purport to offer, their style of discipline and the ethics of dressing children up like soldiers and infusing militarism in schools.

"Categorically we oppose programs like that," said Oskar Castro, coordinator of the youth and militarism program of the American Friends Service Committee, based in Philadelphia. "It's just another attack on our civil society by the military. Everybody talks about the wonderful things - that they instill discipline and leadership and character. We question that."

There are more creative ways to infuse discipline in children, Ionno suggests, such as teaching students to play musical instruments and offering top-flight marching band and art programs.

It's ironic, Castro said, that school districts claim to have zero tolerance for violence then develop military schools "used to prepare for and wage war."

Ionno, the Vietnam veteran, who routinely asks the school board to pass a resolution opposing the war in Iraq, said the appeal of the military can be compelling. As a young man, he said, he was persuaded that democracy would be at risk if America didn't win its war in Vietnam, so he volunteered for service.

"I bought all the propaganda. Being a medic and picking up the pieces of the people dying all around me changed my mind," said Ionno.

There is little information available about whether public military schools are successful at improving the academic achievement of students.

"We have not done exceedingly well on standardized test scores, although we are doing better every year," said Dawson, the commandant at Toole, noting that each year expectations for achievement rise under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Adamowski has not yet prepared a proposal for a military school in Hartford. But Ionno said he won't wait for plans to be put on paper before he expresses his objections.

"I'll do everything I can to stop a military school from getting started," Ionno vowed. "They're just preparing meat for the meat grinder."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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