Schools Get New Marching Orders

The campus is little more than a few Quonset huts on a decommissioned naval base, but to the seventh- and eighth-graders who drill here, the Oakland Military Institute might as well be West Point.

Dressed in black warm-ups, they move in formation along the narrow strip of black top that serves as a parade ground. The squad leaders bark out the orders, as their classmates stomp, strut or shuffle their way through the drills.

Left, right. Left, right. Left, right. Halt.

Recess has a whole new rhythm.

"I like the marching around," says one 13-year-old girl with freckles. "I just think it's fun."

The OMI, as it's called, is one of a growing number of charter schools that have looked to the military for a new educational structure. It is a public school run with help from the National Guard — help that often comes in the form of push-ups and yelling from a drill instructor.

"This is a school that has one mission: that is to qualify kids for the University of California or better," says the school's unlikely champion, one of California's best-known progressives, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.

‘Success Is Our Mission’

"Success is our mission. Failure is not an option," he says, sounding more like "Old Blood and Guts" Patton than Governor Moonbeam, as some wags dubbed him when he tried to make California the first state with a space program in the 1970s.

Although it remains to be seen whether OMI can accomplish that mission, Oakland's other public schools have failed miserably. The district is almost a model of how disastrous public education can be. One out of four high school kids drops out. Three out of four read below the national average. Only one in 10 go on to college.

OMI, by contrast, has few discipline problems. Attendance is strong, because the students are motivated.

Kelly Velasquez, a returning eighth-grader, says, "The kids don't act up as much, so you learn more."

Her friend and classmate Jacqueline Torres nods enthusiastically. "I used to be a D student," she says. "Now, I'm a B."

Parents like the fact that their kids are tightly supervised every moment of the school day. Parent Mark Murphy worries less about his son being exposed to drugs or weapons. "The best thing is the quiet and security here. I can leave and feel my son is safe here," he says.

Critics Say School Should Promote Personal Expression

Not everyone is a believer. Dan Siegel, a member of the Oakland School Board, fought hard against the program, on the grounds that the military is simply incompatible with education. Schools, he argues, should foster "individual expression" not military regimentation.

Sandra Schwartz of the pacifist American Friends Service Committee puts it another way: she says, "The military teaches people to do what they're told. Civil society teaches them to think for themselves."

School officials are offended by such criticism. "They're still kids," says Col. Bart Jones of the National Guard. "We're not trying to create robots" at OMI.

School officials in Oakland and elsewhere are encouraged enough by what they've seen to set aside most concerns. This year Chicago's Military Institute received more than 2,000 applications for the 140 slots in the school's freshman class.

Just this week, a new academy opened in suburban Washington, D.C., bringing to seven the number of military public schools nationwide. Other communities are also drawing up plans for military schools of their own.

"This is not a boot camp," insists Master Sgt. George Booker of the Oakland Military Institute. "We're not trying to turn students into soldiers. We're just trying to give them the chance to be students."