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Schools Get New Marching Orders

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  • Todd Conen Hathaway
    Schools Get New Marching Orders Updated 2:14 PM ET November 30, 2002 The campus is little more than a few Quonset huts on a decommissioned naval base, but to
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 30, 2002
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      Schools Get New Marching Orders
      Updated 2:14 PM ET November 30, 2002

      The campus is little more than a few Quonset huts on a decommissioned
      naval base, but to the seventh- and eighth-graders who drill here,
      the Oakland Military Institute might as well be West Point.


      Dressed in black warm-ups, they move in formation along the narrow
      strip of black top that serves as a parade ground. The squad leaders
      bark out the orders, as their classmates stomp, strut or shuffle
      their way through the drills.

      Left, right. Left, right. Left, right. Halt.

      Recess has a whole new rhythm.

      "I like the marching around," says one 13-year-old girl with
      freckles. "I just think it's fun."

      The OMI, as it's called, is one of a growing number of charter
      schools that have looked to the military for a new educational
      structure. It is a public school run with help from the National
      Guard — help that often comes in the form of push-ups and yelling
      from a drill instructor.

      "This is a school that has one mission: that is to qualify kids for
      the University of California or better," says the school's unlikely
      champion, one of California's best-known progressives, Oakland Mayor
      Jerry Brown.

      `Success Is Our Mission'

      "Success is our mission. Failure is not an option," he says, sounding
      more like "Old Blood and Guts" Patton than Governor Moonbeam, as some
      wags dubbed him when he tried to make California the first state with
      a space program in the 1970s.

      Although it remains to be seen whether OMI can accomplish that
      mission, Oakland's other public schools have failed miserably. The
      district is almost a model of how disastrous public education can be.
      One out of four high school kids drops out. Three out of four read
      below the national average. Only one in 10 go on to college.

      OMI, by contrast, has few discipline problems. Attendance is strong,
      because the students are motivated.

      Kelly Velasquez, a returning eighth-grader, says, "The kids don't act
      up as much, so you learn more."

      Her friend and classmate Jacqueline Torres nods enthusiastically. "I
      used to be a D student," she says. "Now, I'm a B."

      Parents like the fact that their kids are tightly supervised every
      moment of the school day. Parent Mark Murphy worries less about his
      son being exposed to drugs or weapons. "The best thing is the quiet
      and security here. I can leave and feel my son is safe here," he
      says.

      Critics Say School Should Promote Personal Expression

      Not everyone is a believer. Dan Siegel, a member of the Oakland
      School Board, fought hard against the program, on the grounds that
      the military is simply incompatible with education. Schools, he
      argues, should foster "individual expression" not military
      regimentation.

      Sandra Schwartz of the pacifist American Friends Service Committee
      puts it another way: she says, "The military teaches people to do
      what they're told. Civil society teaches them to think for
      themselves."

      School officials are offended by such criticism. "They're still
      kids," says Col. Bart Jones of the National Guard. "We're not trying
      to create robots" at OMI.

      School officials in Oakland and elsewhere are encouraged enough by
      what they've seen to set aside most concerns. This year Chicago's
      Military Institute received more than 2,000 applications for the 140
      slots in the school's freshman class.

      Just this week, a new academy opened in suburban Washington, D.C.,
      bringing to seven the number of military public schools nationwide.
      Other communities are also drawing up plans for military schools of
      their own.

      "This is not a boot camp," insists Master Sgt. George Booker of the
      Oakland Military Institute. "We're not trying to turn students into
      soldiers. We're just trying to give them the chance to be students."
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