Military school may not be a bad idea

June 26, 2000|By Scott Winokur

SAN FRANCISCO - When I was bad, my parents threatened me with military school, which usually shut me up.

I took them seriously. I had no idea of the cost of what I was sure would be a private penal colony. But they were no more likely to send me to military school than to Ft. Lauderdale on spring break.

Nonetheless, I spent many morose hours curled up with the New York Times Magazine scanning its inky, small-type ads for military schools. They've been upbeat. In a recent issue: "Positive peer pressure and brotherhood within a structured setting."

But I've never been fooled.

What they're really all about is whipping into shape fat, thin or otherwise aberrant youth by getting them away from their junk food and their funky friends - and putting them under the thumb of some Nazi masquerading as an educator.

As a kid, I was sure I wouldn't fit in. In retrospect, I probably would have done fine. There are ways to be an obnoxious, know-it-all in uniform if you are creative and hard-headed. I like to think I would have found those ways.

The difference would have been that I'd have been out of the house, but not out of chances. Military school might have been an improvement. The structure would have helped.

Who knows? My teacher might have been someone like Robin Williams in "Dead Poets' Society," instead of Hermann Goering Jr.

It's not a bad idea to impose order on clueless youth. That's what the opponents of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's plan for a National Guard-run charter school fail to understand.

They believe the aging Mayor Moonbeam is being mean when he talks about a new school - serving an eventual 1,000 students, many of them minority and low income - at the old Oakland Army Base.

They hear "military" and think Vietnam and the California Youth Authority. They hear "charter school" and think Mayor Brown is abandoning public education.

But military schools aren't necessarily the same thing as the military or juvenile hall. They are simply a different approach to education and to the delicate years of early and late adolescence.

Nor is structure necessarily a ball and chain. For someone wandering in the wilderness, it can be a road map. How often have you heard tales of the children of hippies and political radicals from the '60s going to the Air Force Academy or West Point? I have - often enough to detect a trend.

At the risk of sounding stodgy and illiberal, may I suggest that being educated in a challenging setting and taught self-discipline might be more of a growth experience than dealing drugs, hanging around the 'hood or even traveling aimlessly around the world because you can't hack college?

"It's a college preparatory program run in a military style. We don't train anyone to go into the military," project director Ralph Marinaro, a brigadier general in the California National Guard, has said.

Still, there are reasonable people who have doubts about the idea, which has been rejected by the Oakland school board and some leading clergymen. They say the money, which could amount to more than $1 million, would be better spent improving the conventional public schools in Oakland.

Board President Dan Siegel, who first supported Mr. Brown, then opposed him, says the mayor's idea "is a model that, at most, will only benefit a small number of students."

A weak criticism, I think. There always have been specialty schools benefiting a small number of students. Those schools attract a large number of students over time and serve as examples to other schools from the outset.

Mr. Brown - who was educated by the Jesuits, as militant a clerical order as you'll find - predicts parents and kids will be fighting to get into his charter school. I'll bet he's right.

Fortunately for Oakland students and parents, their mayor, who has been committed to upgrading the city's awful education system since taking office two years ago, won't back down. He's looking to neighboring education systems for support. There's nothing to stop him from getting funds from other sources.

"The truth of the matter is at public schools in Oakland now, they have armed policemen with loaded revolvers, with Mace, with handcuffs and nightsticks patrolling the yards. I mean, it's crazy," Mr. Brown told CNBC.

I love it when Mayor Moonbeam talks dirty like that. But seriously: It isn't "dirty" at all. It's straight talk - something you rarely hear anymore.

Scott Winokur is a columnist with the San Francisco Examiner.

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