Military schools experience end of a long decline

Rigorous academic and social discipline draws worried parents

September 09, 2001|By Jack Hagel | By Jack Hagel,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - When he discovered his son, David, had crudely altered his report card to turn D's into B's, Jeffrey M. Gloss had a thought that occurs to a lot of parents: military school.

In Gloss' case, he followed through.

"Our son was in a situation where he was about to travel down the slippery slope," said Gloss, explaining why he took David out of Philadelphia's Lower Merion High School and enrolled him at Valley Forge Military Academy four years ago.

David Gloss' application to Valley Forge turns out to have corresponded with a surge of interest in military prep schools.

Dissatisfied with public education and seeking more rigorous academic and social discipline for their sometimes wayward children, parents from the Woodstock generation are increasingly turning to spit-and-polish military training.

While not necessarily seeking a military future for their children, parents say they are drawn to the tighter discipline and more demanding routine provided at military-style schools.

Inquiries up sharply

Nationwide, military schools are posting record inquiry, application and enrollment figures for the first time since the Vietnam War, when a backlash against the military forced many schools to close.

Officials at Valley Forge said that they received about 7,000 inquiries from parents last year, up from 4,100 five years ago. Applications were up 10 percent last year at the 73-year-old boys' school, which has a total enrollment of about 750.

Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga., reported that inquiries jumped from 936 in 1997 to 3,294 last year.

Oak Ridge Military Academy in Oak Ridge, N.C., saw its summer program grow from about 70 students in 1998 to almost 400 students this summer.

Benedictine High School, a Catholic, military-style day school in Richmond, Va., had a 50 percent increase in applications last year.

The schools are not cheap. Valley Forge, at almost $23,000 per year, is more expensive than most state colleges. Fishburne Military Academy in Waynesboro, Va., one of the less expensive military schools, costs nearly $18,000.

Elsewhere, military charter schools are opening.

Oakland Military Institute, set to open this fall in Oakland, Calif., received its charter after Mayor Jerry Brown lobbied local, state and federal officials for support. The Chicago public schools now have two military charter schools. And the Prince George's County School District in Maryland recently obtained federal funding to transform its lowest-performing high school into a military academy.

Charles E. Fleming, principal of one of the two Chicago military academies, said that when his school opened in 1999, he had about 900 applications for 500 spots. Now, he said, he gets 1,300 applications to fill 140 yearly openings.

"People say that all we stress are `yes, sir' and `no, sir,'" Fleming said. "What we stress is courtesy and manners. It's `please' and `thank you' and `would you mind?' - and `yes, sir' and `no, sir.' That's what the military is all about. If you don't think that makes a difference with an employer, you're wrong."

The resurgence in military schools reverses a decline set in motion by the nation's division over the Vietnam War. In 1950, there were 160 military schools. Today, there are about 40.

"I think that Vietnam is no longer a consideration," said Charles J. O'Malley, former assistant secretary for private-school education at the U.S. Department of Education and now an education consultant. "The anti-military feeling has somewhat dissipated. And these schools have been doing a good job for a number of years, and I think people's attitudes toward them have become more positive."

As a result, parents are now more willing to consider a military education for children struggling in public schools.

"If you're an outstanding achiever, you're probably getting a lot of attention in the public schools," said Kelly DeShane, director of admissions at Valley Forge. "If you're in the lower end of the scale, you're probably getting special help. But if you're an overall average student, you may not be getting the same kind of attention as the other students."

David Gloss is a case in point.

His older sister, Erica, was an honors student with a near-perfect transcript at Lower Merion High School. Her success made her a favorite of teachers and guidance counselors at Lower Merion.

David, however, "was kind of lost in the big crowd," his father said. "We felt he needed the attention of small classes."

"Military schools are just another option," said Carson E. R. Holman, 71, president of Carson Long Military Institute in New Bloomfield, Pa.

"Many of the students we get need some structure and direction in their academic work, and this is what we're trying to give them," Holman said.

Andrew Russell of South Philadelphia is another parent impressed by the academic support offered by schools such as Valley Forge Military Academy. His son Ryan, 14, who attended St. Mary's School, won a full scholarship to Valley Forge.

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