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Cover story

Feeding the military machine

Chicago and Philadelphia

God may not be allowed in American public schools but the military visits frequently and, in some districts, has set up camp. An increase in recruiter access to public high school students, made possible by the new education reform bill, and a dramatic expansion of Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, mark a significant growth in the Pentagon’s presence in the hallways and classrooms of America.

Over the past decade, the number of JROTC programs has doubled nationwide, from 1,500 units to around 3,000, and public military academies are becoming popular options, especially in urban districts where truancy and fights are rampant. Expenditures have tripled from $76 million in 1992 to approximately $210 million.

Politicians and school administrators say the military, with its uniforms and code of discipline, bring a much-needed cohesion to schools in chaos. Critics argue the military’s package of goods, with its pro-military career bias, is nothing but a thinly veiled effort to recruit Americans at an ever-younger age, a charge the armed forces denies.

The military’s incursion into public schools, widespread and deep, is undeniably altering the once strictly civilian tenor of public education, as more classrooms become a forum for the Pentagon’s point of view.

In Chicago, the U.S. Army has en-trenched itself in a public school system that is overwhelmingly nonwhite (91 percent) and poor (85 percent of the students come from low-income families), according to district figures. Forty-four of the city’s 93 high schools have a JROTC program. While all branches of the armed services are represented, most of the units are Army-run. One out of every 10 high school students wears a military uniform to school at least once a week and those attending military academies wear them daily. The city has 10 military academies; three operate independently, and seven function as schools within schools.

Despite a federal statute restricting JROTC to a course offering for students in ninth through 12th grades, 20 of Chicago’s middle schools have Cadet Corps, a modified version of high school JROTC. Alisha Hill, principal of Evergreen Middle School where Cadet Corps is offered, said it teaches “kids about rank, armed forces, leadership, drill presentation, flag etiquette.”

Citywide, 500 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, ages 11 to 14, participate in this program that cultivates an early interest in high school JROTC and the military. Last year’s field trip for cadets at Evergreen was a tour of the Great Lakes Naval Station where students observed a day in the life of a Navy recruit.

Primarily an afterschool program, Cadet Corps morphed into a full-day military academy at Madero Middle School, located in a working-class neighborhood that is 98 percent Mexican, according to Principal Rosa Ramirez.

Nationwide, JROTC is in its biggest period of growth since its establishment by Congress in 1916 as a program to develop citizenship and responsibility in young people. This year’s defense authorization bill removed the 2002 cap that limited JROTC units to 3,500, and all branches of the armed services expect to increase their programs, if war doesn’t cut into funding.

After the riots

The four-year course, offered as an elective in lieu of physical education at a traditional high school or as a requirement at a military academy, comes with its own curricula and instructors, who are retired military officers certified by the branch of the armed services they represent. Army JROTC instructors receive their certification at Fort Knox, Ky., which is also headquarters for Army recruiting.

According to the military, impetus for JROTC’s growth in the last decade came from Gen. Colin Powell, now secretary of state, after the Los Angeles race riots in 1992. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, surveyed the ruins of southern Los Angeles and decided that what the nation’s youth needed was the discipline and structure of the military. Critics say JROTC expanded substantially in the early ’90s because the military needed more skilled recruits and youth interest in enlistment had declined. As a recruiting tool, JROTC is undeniably effective. According to defense department estimates 40 percent of all JROTC graduates enlist after high school.

The military’s success in Chicago has led it to dub the city “the national leader” for integrating JROTC into an urban education system.

“The expansion in Chicago has been exponential in the last five years,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Rick Mills, director of Chicago’s Department of JROTC, the largest subdivision of Education Through Careers, the school system’s vocational offerings.

A former squadron commander for the cavalry, Mills’ decorated military career included three years, during the mid-’90s, at U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon’s coordinating hub for all military actions in the Middle East. He retired from active duty in July 2001 and two months later was hired by the Chicago public school system. He earns a salary of $103,000 plus bonuses.

Interestingly, some of Chicago’s strong-est supporters of JROTC are civilians. Mills attributes much of the department’s recent growth to the vigorous backing of Paul Vallas, former CEO of Chicago public schools, and the city’s mayor, Richard Daley.

“Mayor Daley would like to see JROTC in every classroom,” said Lt. Col. William Fletcher, deputy director of Chicago’s JROTC program.

Full of zeal

Energetic and full of organizational zeal, Mills aspires “to make Chicago the premier JROTC program in the country.” His strategy of expansion includes increasing cadet enrollment to 15,000 by 2007, streamlining the certification process of JROTC instructors, and adding 11 new programs. Three are slated to be full-fledged military academies.

Housed in the newly renovated Bronzeville Armory, Chicago Military Academy is the city’s pride and joy. The well-funded facility has shiny, new halls, state-of-the-art equipment in computer labs, an energetic music director and a truancy rate that’s almost nonexistent.

The school day begins briskly with morning drill in the gym. Students line up in Company A, B, C or D, each one organized according to conventional military ranks, and march to rousing numbers like “Caissons Go Rolling Along.” The state’s standard curriculum is taught, but students are required to take four years of Army JROTC’s leadership training and many of the school’s instructors are active or retired members of the military, including three of the four history teachers.

“Everybody has to be qualified under the state. We get as many certified teachers who have a military background as we can,” said school superintendent Brig. Gen. Frank C. Bacon Jr., who bemoaned troop deployment to the Persian Gulf because it is cutting into his teaching staff.

Although the student population is 90 percent black, African-American history is not part of the curriculum. Military history is. Students learn a lot about the development of battle tactics and strategy, said Captain James Patterson III, who has taught computers, political science and world studies at the school.

Fifteen-year old Adrian Rodriguez loves Bronzeville’s spit-and-polish, disciplined atmosphere. “Excellent. Everything is excellent. Discipline is perfect. My grades have improved a lot,” he said. A sophomore with a buzzcut and an earnest face, Rodriguez is thinking about joining the Marines.

Student Ashley Jennings, who also wants to be a Marine, gave the school a more temperate review. “It’s like any other school, just more disciplined,” she said. “It’s pretty cool. The teachers are a lot stricter. They teach you things about responsibility.”

A curious mix

Located on the outskirts of south Chicago, Carver Military Academy is an Army work in progress. Formerly a neighborhood school with an emphasis on the performing arts, it is “going to be the largest military academy in the nation,” said principal William Johnson. The Army began phasing into the school three years ago.

Because of the transition, Carver’s appearance is a curious mix of civilian and military. The school still retains its civilian staff but now has six JROTC instructors; two more are expected, and an additional assistant principal, Lt. Col. Douglas Busch, referred to as “the commandant.” Freshmen through juniors wear a uniform; seniors, the last to graduate from the nonmilitary school, do not. Most of the hallways look like an ordinary high school, but in the JROTC wing all the classroom doors are painted in the pattern of Army camouflage. The wing also houses the Crimson Lounge, a plush meeting room for military staff only.

The Army’s arrival inspired Peter Bochta, teacher of World Studies and African Studies, to plaster his room with recruitment posters. Two hang in the entryway. One adorns his desk. There is even an ad for Army enlistment flush up against an image of noted pacifist Martin Luther King. Atop Bochta’s desk stands a GI Joe model of a machine gun-toting Gen. George Patton. Bochta heard the Army plans to name each classroom after a general and he wants the Patton Room.

The military’s presence at Carver does not trouble Janice Eason and Teresa Moore, two conscientious mothers who chose the school for their teenage sons because of its impressive vocational program and safe, constructive environment. The military regimen was an added bonus, they said.

Eason gets up at 4 a.m. and takes three buses to send 16-year-old Tieyawn to the school. She said many Carver parents chose the academy because the military provides two desired goods -- discipline and opportunity. Eason would like to see the military model introduced in grammar school.

“What’s wrong with discipline? Who doesn’t want to hear their kids say ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am’? … With the military aspect behind them they can go to the military and get college,” she said.

Neither mother supports President Bush’s war plans on Iraq but when asked if they worried about their sons being sent into combat, Eason replied, “No. I’m a big believer in God.”

“I’d worry about sending him into some of the Chicago public schools,” Moore added.

Still below average

As a neighborhood school in a rough area, Carver was plagued with gang violence and poor academic performance. Today the students’ test scores remain below average and the truancy rate is 20 percent, triple the district average, but order reigns. Johnson said there has been a decline in “overt gang presence. There might still be a presence but it is not as prevalent as it once was.”

“There has been a huge change,” said chemistry teacher Jaote Wawatu, who proudly announced that three Carver students were entering the citywide Science Fair this year. “The school is much more disciplined, much more organized. If you have discipline problems, it is handled differently,” he said.

But it’s unclear whether the change in school environment is directly attributable to the military’s code of discipline or Carver’s ability to now select its students. Considered magnet schools and therefore not confined to teaching children in their geographic area, Chicago’s military academies can cull from the student population citywide. While the academies are open to everyone, only those students committed to wearing a uniform and a military regimen need apply. There is no shortage of applicants. About 1,500 families applied to the academy in Bronzeville, according to the school.

JROTC bills itself as a program that teaches good citizenship, life skills and leadership training. The stated mission for Chicago’s Department of JROTC is “Producing citizens of character and vision for our nation.” To a person, instructors vehemently deny that recruitment is part of their agenda.

But critics say the program teaches “followership” rather than leadership, a definition of citizenry that is highly militaristic and skills that are not transferable to civilian settings. They say JROTC’s claim not to be a recruiting tool is a public relations ruse used on school districts, and is not substantiated by internal military communication. For example, an Army regulation states JROTC “should create favorable impressions toward the Armed Services and toward careers in the Armed Forces.”

At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in February 2000, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen describ-ed JROTC as “one of the best recruiting devices that we could have.”

Nonetheless, Bacon, superintendent of Chicago Military Academy, insists his school is a college preparatory institution.

“We’re not training them to go into the service. My goal is to get them into college and help them get out so that four years from now they’ll be as vigorous then as they are now [during morning drill].”

The verdict is out on how successful the school has been in fulfilling this mission. Opened four years ago, the academy graduates its first senior class this June and is just beginning to keep records on post-graduate career choices. Assistant Vice Principal Julius Pin said approximately 80 percent of the senior class is college-bound.

But high school senior Kenneth Adams estimates that a third of his class is enlisting and said he had seen quite a few of his peers at the local Military Enlistment Processing Station. Denied entry into the Marine Corps because of his eyesight, Adams is now pursuing enlistment in the Army. Six of seven Bronzeville students interviewed by NCR -- including Adams -- expressed an interest in joining the military.

“Our goal is that 55 percent of Chicago’s JROTC graduates will pursue postsecondary education,” said Mills, who estimates that 37 percent of all graduating cadets join the military after high school.

Funded as a readiness program

“JROTC was initially funded as a readiness program. A lot of people don’t think about it that way. They think of it as a leadership program,” said Oskar Castro, director of the Youth and Militarism Program at the American Friends Service Committee, a national clearinghouse for activists opposed to the military in public schools. Given the imminence of war, JROTC could serve its original purpose of prepping potential recruits, Castro said.

“If a lot of our young people are wiped out, then you have the next cadre of youth who already had some experience in military life,” he said.

Castro sees similarities between JROTC and Saddam’s Cubs, Iraqi youth in training for war; although he admits the American version is less militaristic. “We can’t look at Saddam’s Cubs, as U.S. citizens, and say, ‘Oh that’s horrific,’ and not look at JROTC as something in the same vein,” he said.

Linking JROTC to military recruitment does not seem to register great alarm among high school administrators, struggling to educate underprivileged youth. In Chicago, many educators viewed the military in school as a builder of student self-confidence, a doorway to bigger and better things or, as “an option” for kids who have few choices.

“There is the reality that not every child is college bound. What do you do with that child?” Johnson asked and then later said, “We do present it [the military] as an option, just as we present college. Certainly we want to see the students go somewhere rather than see them not do anything.”

But Dennis Barneby believes JROTC is not an option public schools should offer.

“JROTC is not part of the Department of Education,” he said. “It is sponsored by the Pentagon. Let it exist, but outside of our schools.”

In mid-January, Barneby, a retired social studies teacher from the Philadelphia public schools, spoke against the proposed expansion of JROTC at a hearing of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. Paul Vallas, formerly of Chicago and the new CEO for Philadelphia public schools, had publicly spoken of plans to put JROTC in all neighborhood high schools, increasing the number of units citywide from eight to 22. As a result of opposition, the school system has since modified this proposal and current plans for high school reform list establishing three military academies and one additional Army JROTC unit.

Barneby lauded Vallas’ effort to revive an underfunded school system in which the arts and “even vocational programs are grotesquely lacking,” but wondered why JROTC was considered part of this revival. “The question of why the U.S. military should have the right to run a program in our schools is basic. There is no equivalent to this,” he said.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a free-lance writer and member of the Worcester, Mass., St. Therese Catholic Worker Community, which believes in pursuing nonviolent solutions to conflict.

Last in a two-part series.

Related Web sites

American Friends Service Committee National Youth and Militarism Program

“America’s Army”

Center on Conscience and War

Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors

Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft

No Child Left Behind

Selective Service System

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003