The ranks are growing at military schools as more parents are enlisting their kids in programs strong on discipline and structure

BASIC TRAINING

November 05, 1995|By Rachel Buchanan O'Hare

Imagine you are the parent of a bright 13-year-old. Your teen-ager, however, is having problems with schoolwork. He won't do his homework, she won't study for exams. Your requests for improvement are ignored. You've started getting calls from the principal at work. You begin to dread report cards. Trouble is mounting and you haven't even hit the high-school years yet.

Suddenly, in the back of a glossy magazine, comes an answer: an advertisement for a school that will "bring out the best in a student." It's been awhile since you thought of your kid as a student, but it sounds good.

Do you do it? Do you tell your child to loose the earphones and baggy plaid shirts, because he -- or she -- is headed for military school?

Military schools are still around, although they hit a bad stretch during the early 1970s. Something about Vietnam really turned a lot of parents off the idea. The schools have been in the news lately, though. Some college-level military schools have been fighting hard to preserve their status as all-male bastions, including Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel in South Carolina. Shannon Faulkner's fight to join the Citadel's cadets reminded a lot of folks that military schools still exist.

But students who attend the Citadel have made it through high school. The elementary and secondary schools designed to help march students on the right path through adolescence haven't made headlines. But they have been attracting more attention from parents. In fact, enrollment at these military schools across the country is growing slightly. Faced with the threat of a teen involved in drugs, violence and sex, more parents are finding it suddenly reasonable to dress their kid in gray wool and send him marching off to school.

But what kind of parent makes good on a threat to send his child to military school? Fred Tillack did. Mr. Tillack seems like an average guy. He went to public school in Northern Virginia, works at a civilian job at the Patuxent Naval Station in Southern Maryland, and is married with one child. His wife grew up in Philadelphia and the couple lived there before moving to rural St. Mary's County. Mr. Tillack said it took a while to get over the culture shock.

So if he is an average guy, how could he pull his son out of public school in the fourth grade and send him to Leonard Hall Junior Naval Academy, a military day school near their home?

He said it was for the structure and attention his son would receive at the school in Leonardtown. He wasn't looking for a military school at the time, he just went along with it. Now he's a convert -- preaching the wonders of a military-style education.

"I found out as a byproduct that the military program motivated him and gave him positive reinforcement," said Mr. Tillack. "It was a surprise to me how well it worked."

Once you start to research the world of military academia, it becomes clear that most of these schools share the same ideas: teach students responsibility through the rank system, teach them discipline through a structured environment, encourage them to conform to military standards by grading their conduct. Enforce the school rules with punishments and rewards.

At most military schools, the rank system works like it does in the real military. Students are promoted from the junior-most rank, which they are given on their first day of school. Promotions are usually based on academic grades, good conduct and, sometimes, the student's effort. On their uniforms, students wear colored stripes, ribbons and stars -- symbols of their rank. With rank comes responsibility. Higher-ranking students are placed in charge of their platoons or battalions.

Across the country, there are 32 military schools for students in elementary through high school, according to the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States. The organization estimates that student enrollment is about 20,000. Most of these schools are boarding schools, meaning students live on campus throughout the year. Students are expected to wear uniforms to class, take classes in military history, march in drills, earn and respect rank.

"The very nature of a military system is to keep all change to a minimum," says Lt. Gen. Willard W. Scott, who is retired from the Army and runs the AMCSUS. "We keep the program because it works."

In the history of the United States, there have been about 600 military academies for boys. It seems that after every major war, these schools take a hit. Enrollment declines as parents sour on the idea of training their sons for battle. But then a few years go by and the fear of war subsides. The press begins to focus on social problems in the public schools, and military school enrollment increases again. Lately, enrollment is on a slight swell. Schools are meeting their quotas -- a few even have waiting lists.

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