School enlists military tactics

Discipline: Uniforms and push-ups mix with math and English at a retooled public school in Prince's George's County.

September 08, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

FORESTVILLE - Command Sgt. Major - now teacher - Sheila Williams races down the hall to her classroom and crosses the threshold expecting the students seated inside to quickly stand and snap to attention.

They don't. If they notice the energetic woman dressed in a crisp green Army-issue uniform, it barely registers.

"What are we going to do?" she barks at them. "I just came in here."

The teen-agers scramble to their feet. Williams quickly finds three in the room dressed in street clothes who stick out from the sea of green ensembles that match her own. "Why aren't you in uniform?" she asks.

She gets a trio of excuses - the pants are too big, the pants are too small, it's in my locker and I don't want to wear it.

So begins one of the more extreme attempts at public school reform under way this year in Maryland. Forestville High School - one of the lowest-performing schools in low-performing Prince George's County - is now Forestville Military Academy, a public school dedicated to teaching in the follow-the-rules-or-drop-and-give-me-20 military way.

While private military high schools have been around for nearly 200 years, Forestville is part of a budding trend toward bringing the same discipline to public schools. It's the only one of its kind in Maryland and one of only a handful nationwide.

"Sometimes you have to operate outside the box to achieve your goal," explained civilian Eric T. Lyles, the school's second-year principal. "I don't believe in the status quo. I don't believe in the same routine over and over. If the routine was effective, I wouldn't be here."

Lyles' supervisor, executive director Marcus J. Newsome, said, "I think these times call for drastic changes. With the high-stakes accountability that has been thrust upon our schools by state and federal governments, we can no longer accept failure."

Forestville's ninth-graders - at more than 400, the largest class in the school's history - are the new military academy's pioneers, the first class to participate in the program. Among other things, they will be required to take military science coursework, which is modeled on the school's highly successful Junior ROTC program, and to wear school-issued uniforms every day.

The students, of course, couldn't talk enough about the uniforms, with their dark green tailored pants and light green button-down shirts.

But what teen isn't concerned about what he or she wears to high school?

Although they complain, it does save parents from having to keep investing in the latest fashions.

"I don't like it because only the ninth-graders have got to wear it," said 14-year-old Veronica Gilbert. "It's dumb. The 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders can tell we're ninth-graders."

As Charles Smith, 15, waited his turn to be fitted for a uniform, he said, "The dressing up - I can't get down with that."

But another student, Ryan Thompson, 14, said, "I like the clothes, and I like the atmosphere of the school."

Thompson's view may seem like the minority view, but officials are convinced that the students will grow to respect the wardrobe, as well as the structured program.

Not Lionel Newsome, who sulked on a recent morning in his baggy black jeans and a Scooby-Doo T-shirt. "At a regular school you can go to your locker and just hang out there and talk to your friends. Here you've got to always be at attention," the 14-year-old said. "Here you've got to go straight to your class or they'll say, `Drop and give me 50.'"

At that moment came a shout from one of the ROTC instructors: "Hey, listen up. I gave you clothes a long time ago. Why don't you have them on?"

More than a uniform

But a uniform does not make a better school. Lyles and his staff know that. Their goal is to raise test scores and add a more rigorous curriculum while building leaders and good citizens at the same time. Their goal is not to create little soldiers, one of the many fears parents had when the concept was first introduced to them last year.

"Our mission is not to put students in the military," Lyles said. "Our mission is to send them to college."

The cadets take standard courses such as English and math alongside the military requirements. Some classes are taught by regular teachers, the rest by retired military instructors.

Each morning, the cadets assemble in formation and are inspected - for the proper uniform and to make sure their books and notebooks are in order. They must keep their hair short (for boys) or off the collar (for girls). They can't wear eccentric makeup or neon nail polish.

The program is modeled on the inner-city Chicago Military Academy, whose first class of students will graduate this year. Its students now score among the top 10 in Chicago; its dropout rate is low, and so are its discipline problems.

"We're getting all kinds of accolades," said Frank C. Bacon, Jr., the academy's superintendent and a retired Army brigadier general. "We're expecting everyone to go to college."

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