The littlest marching unit on Baltimore County's eastside gathers each week with the simplest of military commands: "Fall in!"
When James Rhoda, a former U.S. Marine sergeant, barks out the order, his squad of Sandy Plains Elementary School students scramble into line for another session of parading around the gym.
"We get taught to listen and pay attention to orders," says Lyndsey Gilland, 11, a member of what Sandy Plains educators say is a rare elementary school "military" unit. "It's tough sometimes, but it's fun, too."
For this group of fourth- and fifth-graders, the benefits of Rhoda's work can be seen in more than a growing precision in marching and answering commands. They're also getting a weekly dose of discipline.
"Young people sometimes think the military is only about killing, but that doesn't have anything to do with what I'm teaching these students," says Rhoda, 48, who drives to the Dundalk elementary each week from his Parkville home. "This is about having discipline in your life.
"Whatever these students do, whether it is in class or in sports or at home, they need to have discipline to accomplish their goals," Rhoda says.
For the past 3 1/2 school years, active and retired members of the military have been coming to Sandy Plains for after-school lessons in marching. Rhoda has been teaching the unit since the beginning of the 1996-97 school year, and last summer his squad of students marched in Dundalk's Fourth of July parade.
Each fall, fifth-graders who marched as fourth-graders the previous spring get a semester of intense work on their own. Fourth-graders are permitted to join in January, allowing fifth-graders to serve as teachers and role models for the younger students.
"Some of the kids who come out for this are ones who have problems listening in class, but they love the discipline," says guidance counselor Donna Sullivan. "I think that their work in this is showing in the classroom."
About 15 fifth-graders have been marching since fall, and three dozen fourth-graders joined the unit this month, making it larger than it has ever been.
"I wanted to be in it because I like listening to orders," said new recruit Marissa Riggles, 9, a fourth-grader.
But discipline doesn't always come easily for 50 elementary school students in a gym -- even when the teacher is dressed in green fatigues and black combat boots and sports "Vietnam Veterans of American" patches.
As the students assemble into rows, jostling and pushing isn't uncommon. Some students struggle to tell their right from their left, winding up facing the wrong way in formation.
The Sandy Plains group is too young to be part of the Junior ROTC program, which is aimed at high school students and affiliated with the different branches of the armed services. Still, they often march with such precision that they look like Junior ROTC recruits.
The students are helped by a couple of sixth graders who marched last year and returned to the elementary school to be Rhoda's assistants.
"It was a lot of fun to march in the parade last year, and now I want to show the younger ones what to do," says Matthew Flack, 11, a sixth-grader at General John Stricker Middle School.
The camouflage T-shirts given to students after a semester in the unit adds to the military mystique. The shirts are purchased with donations from local businesses.
"These are your uniforms," Rhoda told the students when he handed them out recently. "Every week you must bring the shirt and wear it. If you don't wear it, you're out of uniform.
"It's not your Mommy's or Daddy's job to make sure it is clean. It's your job. No exceptions," he said.
While Rhoda is tough and demanding, few students seem to mind because they understand that he also is quick to offer praise for good work.
"He pretends to be mean sometimes, but he's really nice," says Erica Kreglow, 10. "He's here because he wants us to do well."
Yet teachers and administrators at Sandy Springs acknowledge that what works for a Vietnam veteran coaching a marching unit isn't possible in the classroom.
"He can just belt it out, and they love it," says principal Stella Holmes. "We could never talk to the kids like that, but it works for him."
But parents don't complain. They like the changes they're seeing at home.
"They listen a little better," says Liz Guzman, whose twin 10-year-old sons, David and Michael, are regular members of the unit.
Michael -- who wants to join the Green Berets when he grows up -- agrees with his mother, but only to a point.
"Do we listen better?" he asks. "A little. When I want to."
Pub Date: 1/27/98