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JIM LEHRER: Mixing public education with military discipline. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW, Chicago reports.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Delareese Jackson's day begins early. The teenager is out of bed at 4:00 A.M. It's still dark when she leaves the house on the south side of Chicago for the 45-minute ride on two buses to her high school.
OFFICER: Forward, march.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What makes Jackson willing to get up and get to school by 6:30? The Chicago military academy, Bronzeville, the nation's first public high school run by the Army's Junior Officer Training Corps.
OFFICER: Left, left, right, left.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Chicago military academy was a dream of many in Chicago, but the guiding force was the current superintendent, Retired Brigadier General Frank Bacon.
BRIG. GENERAL FRANK BACON (RET.): We're not training soldiers here, we're training students. Our goals here is 100 percent graduation, 90 percent of that group go to college, and 90 percent of that group will graduate from college, and 70 percent will go on scholarships that we are able to identify here at this school.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: If this first class of 148 cadets-- so far, only freshmen are enrolled-- can meet those goals, they will be far ahead of other Chicago high schools. Only 33 percent of Chicago high school students read at the national average, and the dropout rate is 42 percent. School CEO Paul Vallas sees the military model as one answer to Chicago's troubled high schools.
PAUL VALLAS, CEO, Chicago Public Schools: I think the military model is beneficial because it places young people in a training environment where academics is not only stressed, but also where discipline is stressed. It places them in an environment where they are put through programs and put through exercises that are designed to help them develop a sense of self-esteem.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The discipline was one thing that drew Delareese Jackson to the academy.
OFFICER: Very good.
CADET DELAREESE JACKSON: I like it. I mean, I feel that we should have discipline or... you know, because some kids, their parents didn't discipline them as well as they should have. So for some kids, this would be a good break.
OFFICER: Left, left, left, right, left. Left, left, left...
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: George Washington's self- esteem went way up after his recent promotion to cadet first sergeant.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What do you like about it?
CADET GEORGE WASHINGTON: The chance to be a leader over the rest of the 148 cadets, and teaching them what to do and how to do it, and taking responsibility for what they do.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Even those who have opposed military recruiting in high schools and colleges in the past have come out in support of the academy. That's partly because the academy has taken steps to head off such potential critics by being very clear in its goals. Colonel Charles Fleming is the commandant and principal of the academy.
COLONEL CHARLES FLEMING, Principal/Commandant: We are not a recruiting ground for the military. There is no military obligation at the end of their tour with the Chicago Military Academy, Bronzeville. But we're using the military methodology to teach kids.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The 13 staff-members are Chicago public school teachers. Five have military backgrounds, and two of them pick up a check from the military as well as the school board. Students take a standard college preparatory curriculum, along with military history and military science. All classes emphasize the military method.
COLONEL CHARLES FLEMING: In the military, we're required to taken an M-16 apart and put it back together in a certain amount of time. If you do that, you get a goal. If you don't do that again, or if you don't do it, you would get retrained, and you would get retrained to the point of the time that, you know, you get that mission accomplished, that task accomplished.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There are no special entrance requirements for the academy. Any eighth-grade graduate can apply. 75 percent of the academy cadets come from homes with incomes below the poverty line. 79 percent are black, 16 percent Hispanic, 5 percent white or Asian. English teacher Barbara Vines:
BARBARA VINES, Teacher: That's the essence of the school, is to not make it selective. We want to take your average student, the student that comes out of anyone's home every day, and make him a successful student.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Parental involvement is key at the academy. Though it is a public school, parents are required to sign contracts saying their children will follow the rules of the academy. Melanee Debro has been amazed at the changes in her daughter.
MELANEE DEBRO: I see her in the morning, and she has this green military uniform on, and she's a totally different person when she puts it on. She really seems to be military. From a child that's coming from eighth grade that wore blue jeans and gym shoes and T-shirts, and now she's straight-laced, creased, and all that, it's kind of weird, but it's a good weird.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Debro had thought of a military academy for her daughter Brittany several years ago.
MELANEE DEBRO: She had gotten kind of out of hand, and I called about Howe Military Academy... I think it's in Indiana somewhere, and found out that their military academy is $25,000 a year, okay? So Chicago public school military academy is a much better opportunity.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The general agrees. How is this different than, say, St. John's military academy?
BRIG. GEN. FRANK BACON (RET.):$26,000 cheaper. We charge nothing here.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As these young cadets march, General Bacon also hears the footsteps of past soldiers. The Eighth Regiment Armory Building that houses the academy first opened its doors in 1915.
BRIG. GEN. FRANK BACON (RET.): It was the armory, the armory that the black troops were assigned to and were able to drill in and to have their units stationed in. Prior to that, they had no place to be.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The eighth regiment sent black troops off to war right through World War II and Korea. And it was the dream of the community to save the historic building that had been so much a part of African-American history in Chicago.
BRIG. GEN. FRANK BACON (RET.): It was the center of the social fabric for the entire Chicago south side.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The armory event historian Dempsey Travis remembers was on June 27, 1937: The battle of the big bands.
DEMPSEY TRAVIS, Historian: There must have been 5,000 people. The lead band was Roy Elridge, and then Goodman moves in with his 16 pieces, with Krupa on the drums and Harry James, and just tore the place up with "King Porter Stomp." He opened it up, and it looked like the roof literally lifted up into the skies.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Forty years later, much of the roof was opened to the skies, but neglect, not music, was the cause. After the armed forces were integrated in the 1950's, the armory was no longer needed. Numerous renovation plans were put forward, but the armory's deterioration continued. Finally, General Bacon and others convinced school CEO Paul Vallas to buy the armory.
PAUL VALLAS: There was a tree growing out of the ceiling. At the top of the armory, at the roof of the armory, there was a tree. So, you know, I said to myself, "oh, God, did we bite more off than we could chew?" I said, "we're never going to be able to restructure this."
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It took a year and $14 million to renovate the building. Now some of the proudest families of the new academy are those with ties to the old 8th Regiment.
COLONEL MELVIN MABRY (RET.): World War II, they were with the 92nd Division.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cadet Lavin Curry's father, retired Colonel Melvin Mabry, joined the army in 1941, and remembers the armory.
COLONEL MELVIN MABRY (RET.): The armory itself was sort of like a... it was like a Disney, you know? It was polished and shiny. The floor was shining and spotless. I saw it fall in disarray and all, and really I thought it was gone forever.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Curry has heard the tales of the old armory.
CADET LAVIN CURRY: I hear that it has been in the army for segregated colored troops. So they're really trying to build it up. That's why people really shine when we say we go to Bronzeville. They think back to the armory, and how it used to be, and they built that back up.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Mabry thinks the experience at the academy will change his son's life.
COLONEL MELVIN MABRY (RET.): It took him out of one world and put him in another world. You know, where you see the kids with the trousers almost down to their knees and their shirt hanging out? Well, he's in a different environment now, and that should mold him into good leadership.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: School administrators see the academy as an option for changing urban school systems.
SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR: This is a model that we're going to continue to expand throughout the system. (Trumpet playing)
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Chicago Military Academy will add a new class every year. When this class graduates in 2003, all four classes will be in place, and this public school military academy will have brought back much more than a building to Chicago's south side.
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