Military schools bask in attention to values, conduct But high tuition and long waiting lists are commonplace

May 31, 1998|By Scott Shepard | Scott Shepard,COX NEWS SERVICE

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. - Reveille sounds at 0600 hours, echoing across the lush, leafy campus of Valley Forge Military Academy, heralding a new dawn for the 800 cadets here and for military schools across America.

Spurned in the anti-military atmosphere of the Vietnam War, military schools dwindled from nearly 600 in the late 1950s to just 41 by the time U.S. military involvement ended in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.

But now, with parents increasingly concerned about chaotic conduct and the lack of value-oriented curricula in some public school classrooms, military schools are filled to capacity.

Typical of this change is Gail Paroda of Hamilton Township, N.J., whose 17-year-old son, Andy, is in his third year at Valley Forge.

"My son, military school? No way, I thought," said the 46-year-old Paroda, who came of age during the Vietnam War. "But his public school destroyed him, telling him he was stupid. He had no self-esteem, no future."

In desperation, she enrolled her son at Valley Forge, where he has done an about-face, not only in grades - he's gone from a D to a B average - but in self-confidence and, according to his mother, "a real sense of right and wrong."

Waiting lists commonplace

Waiting lists of applicants are commonplace at military schools today, according to Lewis Sorley, executive director of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States.

"A day doesn't pass that I don't get several phone calls from parents desperate to find a military school near them," said Sorley.

So great is the demand that, for the first time since 1965, a new military school is being planned - a Christian military academy, the decade-old vision of Forrest Clay Wheat Sr., a retired naval officer and successful businessman in the telecommunications industry.

"We're going to create the best possible leaders we can have for the new millennium," Wheat said. "As a Christian school, we'll provide moral guidance to what is right and what is wrong in life."

Wheat's school, the Virginia Naval Academy, will be built on a 1,000-acre former plantation on the banks of the Rappahannock River near Virginia's coastline. The plan is to have 400 students, graduating 100 a year.

Unlike most military schools, which are still overwhelmingly male, Wheat's school will be co-ed, like the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Wheat hopes his school will be a "feeder" for Annapolis.

And because military schools are typically very expensive - Valley Forge costs a minimum of $20,700 per year - Wheat is trying to endow his school with adequate funds for merit scholarships.

"We want to admit people not because they have the right social standing or money, but because they have the capability to learn and develop," he said.

Attitudes change

As American attitudes toward military schools have changed, so have the schools themselves, turning their attention to character-building as much as to discipline and academic achievement. And in that, the 80-year-old Valley Forge Military Academy, among the foremost schools of its kind, has led the way.

Honor codes that prohibit lying, cheating and stealing are fixtures at all military schools. So, too, at many schools, is mandatory attendance at religious services.

But in 1977, Valley Forge introduced character education to its curriculum, classes in which cadets grapple with case studies of moral dilemmas. Today, many of those lessons are drawn from William Bennett's best-seller, "The Book of Virtues."

"The idea is to develop the whole man, a man who is responsible for himself and to others, not necessarily for military service but for good citizenship," said Gen. Al Sanelli, the academy chaplain, who is responsible for the character education program.

Many of the new cadets initially dismiss character education as irrelevant. "Most of them come here not knowing any better," said John McDonald-Guizar, 17, a second-year cadet from Houston. "Cheating? They think: what's the big deal? Everybody cheats. But after awhile, they start thinking about it and talking about it, and they get it."

Rear Adm. Virgil Hill Jr., the academy president, lamented that conditions in American society today - especially homes broken by divorce or strained by demanding careers - make character education necessary.

"You talk to 14- and 15-year-old kids about honor, it's not an easy subject, not something that they've had a lot of discussion about up to then in their lives," Hill said. "But it sticks, and for most of these kids, their time here is a life-altering experience."

'It's not easy'

It doesn't stick with every cadet, however. About 15 percent of those who enroll at Valley Forge wash out before the end of the year.

"It's not easy," said Chris Dasilva, 17, of Boca Raton, Fla., who is completing his first year at Valley Forge.

Military schools still have the reputation as a dumping ground for boys in trouble, and a significant number of current Valley Forge cadets fit the profile.

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