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Chicago’s Military Academies Raise Education Debate

December 26, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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Elizabeth Brackett reports on a controversial program that has some of Chicago's public schools following the model of military academies, and the debate over whether it is an effective way to boost student performance in tough urban neighborhoods.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, using public school military academies to teach leadership and boost test scores in low-income urban neighborhoods. NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago has our report.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: The cadets at the Marine Military Academy in Chicago listen up as commands are given. One hundred and twenty eight students attend the new school, the fifth in the Chicago public school system to adopt a military model.

The program is led by Retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Mills.

RICK MILLS, Chicago Public Schools: The purpose of the military academy programs is to offer our cadets and parents an educational choice among many choices in Chicago public schools and to provide an educational experience that has a college prep curriculum, combined with a military curriculum.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Over 10,000 Chicago high school students now wear a military uniform to class.

The program began in 1999, when the Chicago Military Academy opened in conjunction with the Army Junior ROTC. It was the first military model public school in the nation.

That was followed by two more Army military academies, then the Rickover Naval Academy. In addition, four other public schools have Army military academies within them. Plus, there are three dozen traditional Junior ROTC high school programs and 20 middle school programs.

Marine Academy principal and former Army officer Paul Stroh says the schools have a clear mission.

PAUL STROH, Marine Military Academy: We’re trying to produce a student that is prepared for post-secondary education and that eventually will become a leader in their community, on the city or the state or even at the national level.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Parents and students at the Marine Military Academy thought the school would give them a leg up.

PATRICK NGUYEN, Marine Military Academy Parent: I think it’s a great opportunity for her to learn things that you don’t learn in a regular school, such as leadership and citizenship. You get to do things such as lead a class. You get to do some of the other things that aren’t really specifically military-based, but things that you can apply in your life afterwards.

JESSIKA NGUYEN, Marine Military Academy: I really like that you have a chance to be a leader. And they said that every — by the time you graduate, every student will have the chance to take a leadership position. And I thought that was really interesting.

JOHNNY RODRIGUEZ, Marine Military Academy Parent: Basically the structure of discipline, if they are going to be disciplined in the manner of the military school.

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ, Marine Military Academy: I like the physical training, and I like that we could become leaders and we know every student. No bullies, none of that, so it’s real cool.

Assessing racial, social disparity

Pauline Lipman
University of Illinois at Chicago
When we talk about how these are good schools for these kids, one of the things we want to think about is, why are they not in upper-middle-class white communities?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Minorities make up 92 percent of the cadet population. Only 4 percent are white, compared to 8 percent of the general Chicago public schools population.

There are no public school military academies in Chicago's suburbs. That disturbs Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Education.

PAULINE LIPMAN, University of Illinois at Chicago: When we talk about how these are good schools for these kids, one of the things we want to think about is, why are they not in upper-middle-class white communities? Why are they good schools for low-income African-American and Latino students and not good schools for affluent white kids?

And are we saying that those students need a different kind of discipline, a different kind of regulation, a different kind of option? And I think that's a form of racial discrimination, and that's really concerning to me.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The whole military nature of the academies attracted angry protesters when Rickover Naval Academy opened in 2005.

CHRIS INSERRA: Our children should not be in school in high school to learn about war. They should learn about the effects of war; they should not learn to be recruited for war.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And as the war in Iraq heads toward a fifth year and the antiwar protests continue, some like Darlene Gramigna of the American Friends Service Committee are concerned over what they call the militarization of the school system.

DARLENE GRAMIGNA, American Friends Service Committee: Chicago has -- well, in 2009, will have six of the 17 military academies in the country. So we consider ourselves the most military school system in the country. And the question is, why?

Concerns over recruitment

Thania Rivas
Rickover Military Academy
It's a college preparatory, so it's not like we're telling people to come here and you're going to join the Navy after you leave high school. No, your first priority is to go to college.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Both Gramigna and Lipman thinks the answer is the military wants to recruit the students.

PAULINE LIPMAN: I know that the schools say that they are not about recruiting students, but in fact there's a lot of evidence to the contrary.

I think it would be really naive to think that the military would, in fact, be expanding these schools and these programs and pouring millions of dollars into the schools at a time when they actually are having a recruitment crisis, if the schools were not about recruiting students.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: All students attending the military academies are required to take one four-year course pertaining to the military. The Junior ROTC curriculum includes military history, military protocol, civics and physical fitness.

INSTRUCTOR: When was the last time you shined your shoes?

STUDENT: Yesterday. No, day before yesterday, sir.

INSTRUCTOR: Shoes.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cadets also undergo personnel inspections...

INSTRUCTOR: Hair cut.

INSTRUCTOR: About face! Forward march!

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: ... and they spend many after school hours practicing for the drill team. But despite the military trappings, those involved with the military academies insist recruitment is not part of the program.

RICK MILLS: This program isn't about recruiting. This program's not about putting young men and women in uniform when they graduate. It's about putting them in colleges or universities or furthering their education.

That's really the emphasis of this, and I think it's a quantum leap to make that point and tie it to national policy that's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's just not the intent of the program.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: None of the cadets at the Rickover Naval Academy we talked with said they felt any pressure to join the military.

THANIA RIVAS, Rickover Military Academy: They don't put pressure on you. Our main purpose is for us to go to college.

And, like we said, it's a college preparatory, so it's not like we're telling people to come here and you're going to join the Navy after you leave high school. No, your first priority is to go to college. Then, if you think about going into the Navy, then you can, but it's always a choice.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Though they did say many of their friends thought their decision to go to a military academy was weird.

MASTEN MEISELS, Rickover Military Academy: ... and because I came here, they wrote, like, nasty letters in my autograph book, such as, "Don't get shot" and -- among other things. But they really didn't understand about the school.

And I had been in the school already. I was so interested in, like, all the things that the school was connected with, and I really didn't care what they thought of it, because I knew that the school was the right school for me.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Masten Meisels' father says initially he did have some questions about the possibility of recruiting.

MARK MEISELS, Rickover Military Academy: I mean, do they recruit? Is that what this is really about? That was an issue. And we're involved. So I can assure you that they don't recruit and that that is not a part of what goes on here.

They're about living by this military code, by this Naval code, and that's very compatible with what I want my kids to know and to live by.

Gauging student progress

Ferdinand Wipachit
Phoenix Military Academy
Violence has decreased dramatically. For example, you have this school year, for the past 12 weeks, only one incident, and that is a very significant difference.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Chicago public schools Junior ROTC Web site shows that only 4 percent of the military academies' 2007 year graduates went into the military; 78 percent went onto college.

As for how the schools are doing academically, supporters say, as a whole, the academies show higher attendance and graduation rates and lower drop-out rates than the rest of the system.

But some of the statistics are not as positive. At the Chicago Military Academy, only 66 percent of the 2005 graduates went on to college, and the average ACT score was well below the state average.

At the Phoenix Military Academy on the near west side of the city, only 11 percent of the students met state standards, with just 56 percent of the freshmen on track to graduate.

PAULINE LIPMAN: Given all the additional resources that the military schools have, we would have -- and smaller classes, and the small-school model, and all the things that you are mentioning, we would certainly have expected something far better than what we see there.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Phoenix Principal Ferdinand Wipachit says that his school's scores have increased every year since the academy replaced the underperforming Orr High School. And while scores are up, Wipachit says violence is down.

FERDINAND WIPACHIT, Phoenix Military Academy: I could see the difference between -- in terms of violence has decreased dramatically. For example, you have this school year, for the past 12 weeks, only one incident, and that is a very significant difference here compared to the violence at the Orr unit, where you have almost an incident every period or every other period.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The demand continues to grow for the military academies. Last year, there were 7,500 applicants for 700 freshmen seats. As a result, a new Air Force military academy has been approved to open in 2009.