Matthew Hartman had every intention of enlisting in the Army directly after his graduation in two years. But it was Col. Sterling Stokes and his military staff who convinced Hartman that college, not the battlefield, was a better option. At least for now.
“They persuaded me that there is always time to serve my country and that maybe I would be able to serve even better if I went to college first,” Hartman, 16, says.
The Richmond, Va., native is a junior at the Franklin Military Academy in Richmond, where Stokes is principal. He earned the highest score on the 2008 National Chemistry Olympiad in his school, and is the type of student college admissions counselors would like to see among their applicants.
But for Cadet Hartman, the military seemed like a natural progression.
Academies like Franklin Military are part of the country’s rapidly expanding Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program. The academies are exclusively JROTC and the Department of Defense helps fund them – part of a growing trend to introduce military schools into the public school system in primarily poor urban areas where many school systems are struggling, if not failing.
These academies aren’t boot camps for delinquents. There is no compulsory military service upon graduation. And they’re not the realization of the Bush administration’s machinations. In fact, administrators insist the academies are college prep schools.
But for many, the evidence isn’t so clear. Critics like Darlene Graminga, of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker pacifist organization, suggest that cases like Hartman’s are few and far between, and that the military academies are a veiled attempt to recruit American youth.
Graminga, program director of the group’s Truth in Recruiting Program, says, “I hardly doubt that it’s a coincidence that these schools are prospering at a time of war.”
Despite such concerns, public military academies are wildly popular among many parents and students.
Chicago – with more academies than any other city – can’t build them fast enough. Chicago’s sixth academy will open this fall. In all, the city has one-third of the country’s academies.
Each year, the Chicago Public Schools accepts only about 10 percent of academy applicants. For the 2007-2008 school year, approximately 7,500 students applied for 700 openings in the freshman class.
Military academies are part of the JROTC program that began in 1916. Former Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell is credited with advancing JROTC in its current form, in part by influencing then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992 to more than double the size of the program, from 1,500 JROTC programs to 3,500.
In his book My American Journey, Powell wrote: “Inner-city kids, many from broken homes, found stability and role models in Junior ROTC. They got a taste of discipline, the work ethic, and they experienced pride of membership in something healthier than a gang. … Junior ROTC is a social bargain.”
In Virginia, the Richmond School Board and its Superintendent Richard Hunter conceptualized Franklin Military Academy – the country’s first secondary military academy – on the heels of the Vietnam War in the late ’70s. It opened its doors to 130 freshmen in the fall of 1980.
The following year, academies opened in St. Louis and Sandy Hook, N.J. After a 16-year gap, the Kenosha Military Academy in Wisconsin was built in 1998. Since then, the academies have grown at a rate of one to two a year.
“Students have to make the choice on their own to be here,” says Stokes, Franklin’s principal.
Once a student makes that first step, the application process is rigorous, including an interview and a written commitment from the parents, as well as the student.
“We’re aiming at kids who aren’t in trouble but who aren’t fully realizing their potential, either,” says Ozzie Wright, principal of the Philadelphia Military Academy. “We often see kids who have all the makings of being good students, but have very unstable home lives because of economics and family structures. We can make a difference in these students’ lives.”
Elaine Macon-Johnson, who is in her fourth year at Franklin, teaches technology and business. She had arrived at the academy unwillingly, as part of a job reassignment, doubting whether public military academies should even exist. After a few years at Franklin, she says she became a convert.
“All I have to do is teach now,” Macon-Johnson says. “Before, I would have to spend so much time as disciplinarian.” These days, she says, “I don’t have behavior problems. And on the rare occasion that something does happen, it’s somebody else’s job to take care of, not mine.”
Many academy teachers, most of whom don’t have military backgrounds, say they feel the same way. Walking down the hallway in between classes, military instructor Sgt. Gary McCray says, “Look at this. When you were in school, did you ever see it so calm?” referring to the students quietly moving from one class to another, conversing. “Everybody is so relaxed,” McCray says.
Roberto Rodriguez, a first-year Marine Military Academy cadet, says, “I like that we could become leaders and we know every student. No bullies, none of that, so it’s real cool.”
Students attending the military academies are required to take one four-year military-related course. The JROTC curriculum includes military history, military protocol, civics and physical fitness. Students often participate in drill team, color guard and extracurricular activities, such as rock climbing and traveling. Some schools arrange an international trip each year for a limited number of students, and nearly all the academies send a large number of students to the Army-Navy football game each year. For the many students who have never been out of state – even out of their city – this is an appealing perk.
As part of the 1916 National Defense Act, JROTC was created to prepare American youth to fight in World War I, if needed. And JROTC falls under the recruitment section of the Pentagon’s budget.
Principals are quick to say that they are not asked to boost the numbers of graduating students who enlist. Stokes says, “It’s not like we have been given [an enlistment] quota here.”
But in February 2000, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen told the House Armed Services Committee that JROTC is “one of the best recruiting devices we could have.” And Powell wrote in My American Journey, “Liberal school administrators and teachers claimed that we were trying to ‘militarize’ education. Yes, I’ll admit, the armed forces might get a youngster more inclined to enlist as a result of Junior ROTC. But society got a far greater payoff.”
In a difficult period for military recruiters, the Pentagon is expected to spend $20.5 billion in 2009 on recruiting, some of which will be distributed to JROTC. Pauline Lipman, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told PBS in December 2007, “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.”
The Army has tried to accommodate its recruitment woes by reducing its annual recruitment goal, raising the maximum enlistment age from 35 to 42, lowering mental aptitude standards, and welcoming in the overweight, the physically injured and formerly convicted.
Military statistics over the last two decades indicate that 30 percent to 55 percent of JROTC students eventually enlist. The military academies, however, maintain that their enlistment rates after graduation ranges between 4 percent and 10 percent.
“If the Defense Department is looking to us for recruitment, then they are making a bad investment,” says Wright, the principal at Philadelphia Military Academy.
But the numbers are inconclusive, if not misleading. The academies collect their data through exit interviews with graduating students. If a student goes directly into the military upon graduation – and the student has made that decision at the time of filling out the questionnaire – he or she would be part of that 4 percent-to-10 percent pool. However, if he or she doesn’t directly enlist and instead, for example, goes to college on a ROTC scholarship, then the academies, like other public high schools, don’t have the mechanisms in place to track the student after graduation.
Hugh Price, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, once advocated using the military’s discipline to help at-risk youth. As vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1988 until 1994, he helped conceive and launch the quasi-military program for school dropouts that came to be known as the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program.
Price says he now thinks that schools have better options than a military presence. He wants to demilitarize public education and wonders whether the government can “find a way to make the attributes of the military model generic? Can it be done without the military? We need to find a way to help the struggling youth of America without funding from the military.”
Under the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, any school that receives federal funding must allow access to military recruiters. One of the military instructors at Franklin boasts that the school had a good relationship with the area recruiters. “Oh yeah,” he says, “We see them all the time.”
The academies often bill themselves as college prep schools. And looking at the schools and the learning environments, it appears they are making a difference in the students’ lives. Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools system, boasts that the city’s military academies have a 94 percent graduation rate versus the district average of 84 percent.
But Oskar Castro, national coordinator of the AFSC’s Youth & Militarism program, isn’t convinced.
“Where is the evidence?” he asks. “So many of these schools are so new, and they claim that it’s too early to tell [whether a school is successful], so why are we still building them if we don’t know?”
And the AFSC’s Graminga argues that the academies don’t produce better results than other schools that are part of the small charter school programs, currently en vogue among public school leaders in large, urban environments.
“We have seen small schools projects be successful and the successes that are related to the military academies are in line with that,” she says. “But there doesn’t seem to be anything inherent to the military academies that leads us to say, ‘Now, they’ve got the answer!’ ”
If Graminga is right, that might explain the success at Franklin Military, which has less than 500 students and an exceptionally low 15 to 1, student-teacher ratio.
Powell and others argue that the military has historically given opportunities to those who have limited options. But making that argument also acknowledges that the military uses the academies as a recruiting tool. And given the academies’ demographics and the destruction of the GI Bill, which once provided funding for a college education, one can reasonably ask whether the Department of Defense is truly concerned with sending poor black and Latino kids to college.
In Richmond, Franklin Military consistently accommodates a 95 percent African-American student body in a city that, according to the 2006 census, has a population of which 20 percent exist below the poverty line and 54 percent are African-American.
Academy administrators maintain that these are the realities of urban America. Philadelphia Military’s Wright says, “The wealthier families in cities have the advantage of sending their children to private schools and a certain portion will go to the better public schools. But in cities, we know we are facing a particular demographic.”
The military, he adds, has a “history of providing opportunities” to underprivileged sectors of society.
If interest by school districts in military-sponsored education is any indication, we can expect to see a tremendous growth in the number of academies. What is less clear is whether the military academies would be considered successful if the public school systems in these urban areas were doing an adequate job.
“If the military branches are formally involved as sponsors, operators and funders,” says Price, “it is naive to expect them to resist the temptation to [use] these programs as a recruitment pipeline. If anything, given global conditions, the pressure on them to do so probably will intensify instead of subside.”
[Editor’s note: Research support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.]