Several hundred teenagers dressed in patent leather shoes and crisp green U.S. Army uniforms are greeting and backslapping each other in the crowded school hallway. Suddenly, a drum corps thunders to life, and the students hustle into a cavernous hall, where they snap to attention. Chests out, butts in, chins up, and right hands that smack their foreheads in simultaneous salute. Stone-faced student “commanders” walk along the formation, writing demerits for missing ties, untied shoes, and other infractions. A girl behind me drops to the floor and sweats through a set of push-ups. “I forgot my name tag,” she explains breathlessly.
Is this West Point? The Citadel? Boot camp? Try again: It’s a typical morning at the Chicago Military Academy, a public high school in the most militarized school system in America. More than 9,000 of the city’s students, some as young as 11, are enrolled in school programs run by the U.S. military. Chicago is in the vanguard of a growing national movement that is responding to the problems of struggling inner-city schools by sending in the Marines-and the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The city is home to the nation’s largest contingent of programs run by the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program established by Congress in 1916 to develop citizenship and responsibility in young peo-ple. Long limited to classrooms in conservative Southern states, jrotc is now in the midst of the largest expansion in its 85-year history.
The program began moving rapidly into public schools across the country after General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited South Central Los Angeles following the riots in 1992. Surveying the ruins, Powell declared that the solution to what ailed inner-city youth was the kind of discipline and structure offered by the U.S. military. Since then, the number of jrotc units and cadets has doubled. There are now nearly 500,000 students enrolled in the program at some 3,000 schools nationwide, and the Defense Department plans to spend $234 million on jrotc this year — nearly quadruple what it spent a decade ago.
The idea of calling in the military to shape up students has won some unusual allies. Last August, the Oakland Military Institute, a public school run by the California National Guard, welcomed its first class of 170 students. The institute, which kicked off the year with a grueling two-week boot camp, was the brainchild of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, the iconoclastic ex-governor of California who overruled two school boards and braved a firestorm of controversy to establish the academy. “The goal here is to become leaders in business, government, the arts,” the embattled mayor declared on the school’s opening day. “It’s not engaging debates on Star Wars or whether to go to the Gulf War.”
Why are schools inviting soldiers into the classroom? The simple answer is that jrotc offers an irresistible bargain: The military provides textbooks, uniforms, and instructors for the first two years of the program, offering an infusion of resources for cash-strapped schools. In addition, jrotc bills itself as a solution to high dropout rates and failing grades, promising to provide troubled kids with the discipline they need to stay in school and improve their performance. “I don’t know where we’d be without it,” says Joseph Murphy Jr., principal of Burncoat High School in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I think many kids in the program wouldn’t make it through high school without the rotc experience.”
But the explosive growth of jrotc has prompted a wave of opposition. From Worcester to Seattle, community groups have resisted the program, charging that the military is exploiting the desperation of inner-city schools. jrotc classes are taught by retired military personnel with minimal training as educators, and the program can muster little evidence that it actually helps at-risk youth. To many opponents, jrotc is little more than a recruitment program in disguise, designed to introduce black and Hispanic kids to a military mind-set at an early age. “Why are we just offering them the military?” asks Harold Jordan, coordinator of the National Youth and Militarism Program for the American Friends Service Committee. “Why does the bargain have to be one where they have to shake hands with Uncle Sam and possibly risk their lives? I don’t think it’s an acceptable trade-off.”
In the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks, as the nation’s interest was focused on the armed forces, I traveled around the country to see what the military is doing in America’s schools. As the United States primed for a new war, it seemed an appropriate time to explore whether the military is helping troubled teens and training a new generation of leaders — or just recruiting more grunts.
From the outside, everything about the Chicago Military Academy seems incongruous. In the middle of a neigh- borhood filled with dilapidated housing projects and run-down shops, the school is housed in an old brick armory that’s been restored like a high-rent condo. As I arrive early one morning, boys and girls in smartly tailored green uniforms are filing into the building to begin the school day.
The academy is the jewel in the crown of the jrotc program in Chicago, one of two public schools in the city in which every student is a member of the Army corps. Forty-one of the city’s 92 other public high schools are home to jrotc units, and another 16 middle schools also have “leadership” programs run by the military. There are plans for a third public military academy next year, as well as talk of offering jrotc in every high school in the city. The Chicago school system is spending $2.8 million on jrotc programs this year and another $5 million on the two military academies — more than it spends on any other special or magnet program. The Department of Defense kicks in an additional $600,000 for salaries and supplies.
“Our ultimate goal is to increase the preparedness of students for life employment, for higher education, and to be better prepared for their role as citizens in this country in whatever they want to pursue,” says Army Lt. Colonel Rick Mills, who directs jrotc programs in Chicago. Mills, a retired squadron commander who was hired by the school system despite having no jrotc teaching experience, earns a salary and bonus of $110,000, making him one of the system’s highest-paid administrators.
In Chicago, the program’s size and aggressiveness have muted most critics. In fact, jrotc is popular here: There were 2,000 applicants for 140 slots at the Chicago Military Academy this year. Many students who gravitate to the program seem to find it a place of belonging. jrotc classrooms often have the feel of a clubhouse, and like any popular club, they offer alluring perks: The field trips, dances, drill competitions, and community service projects build camaraderie and self-esteem. Parents say they appreciate the respect for authority that the military mentality cultivates, and many single mothers see the male instructors as role models for their children. In neighborhoods where gang affiliation is common, jrotc stands as a safe counterweight — a “good gang,” in the words of Colin Powell. The program also offers tangible benefits after graduation: For those who decide to enlist in the military, their jrotc stripes are worth at least $200 per month in extra pay.
The superintendent of the academy, retired Brig. General Frank Bacon Jr., has heard from critics in the neighborhood who accuse him of training disadvantaged children for a life in the military. Three-fourths of his students are African American; another 22 percent are Hispanic. “We don’t have any Vanderbilts or Rockefellers in here,” concedes Bacon, a silver-haired man in a neatly pressed Army uniform who grew up in the neighborhood. “We are a poverty area — 73 percent of our students eat free lunches.” But the superintendent insists that his goal is education, not recruitment. “I’m giving them additional avenues to make a living, and to make them good citizens,” he says. “jrotc is just a methodology that works.”
That methodology is on display in the corridors of the academy. Students wear either khakis or a full-dress military uniform every day and respond to adults with a curt “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.” Cadets are rewarded for good behavior by receiving military rank. The academic workload is typical for a high school, but failure to complete assignments can result in demotions or suspension; chronic violation of the rules can lead to expulsion. Bacon greets incoming students with a no-nonsense message: “If you don’t do your homework, we’ll bust you out.”
Antonio Alvarado, a junior at the academy, has gotten the message. “This is not for the person who has an attitude and shies away from being told to do things,” says the 17-year-old cadet. “If you don’t like responsibility, if you don’t like to be yelled at for not doing things, then don’t come here.”
Other students chafe under the military regimen. “My parents made me come here,” says a 16-year-old student who is sitting in the guidance office after receiving an in-school suspension for swearing at a teacher. Counselors at the school concede that for those who don’t “buy in” to the military approach, the going can be rough. That helps explain why as many as 3 of 4 students leave some jrotc programs before graduation.
jrotc claims it has reduced the dropout rate in Chicago schools by 20 percent and improved student performance. “We are a college prep school,” says Jeanette Howard, chair of the guidance department at the Chicago Military Academy and a 33-year veteran of the public schools. “We want to send 90 percent of our students to college.”
But it’s not clear whether military discipline helps students achieve such educational goals. Only 43 percent of students at the academy scored at or above national reading norms last year, down from 52 percent the previous year. A 1999 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank with close ties to the military, showed that jrotc juniors and seniors in Chicago fared no better at grades or attendance than other students, even though military programs have the advantage of weeding out underperforming students. The study did show better performance for jrotc students in Washington, D.C., but senior cadets in El Paso, Texas, actually posted lower grades and worse attendance.
Whatever its track record in the classroom, jrotc certainly has no problem turning students into soldiers. Defense Department figures show that approximately 40 percent of those who graduate from jrotc eventually join the military. This outcome is not left to chance: An Army memorandum directs jrotc staff to “actively assist cadets who want to enlist in the military [and] emphasize service in the U.S. Army; facilitate recruiter access to cadets in jrotc program and to the entire student body…[and] work closely with high school guidance counselors to sell the Army story.”
The prospect that jrotc offers a ready pool of recruits has not been lost on political leaders. At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in February 2000, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen told represen-tatives that jrotc is “one of the best recruiting devices that we could have.” The committee was impressed. “If that’s the case,” suggested then-Chairman Norman Sisisky (D-Va.), why not have jrotc programs in “as many places as you can?”
The military’s push to expand into more public schools has met with stiff resistance in many cities. Community groups have succeeded in stopping jrotc in California, Washington, Minnesota, and Connecticut. In 1998, community opposition convinced officials in Rye, New York, to halt a jrotc program that had been in the schools for 19 years.
Given the state of many public schools, however, opponents of the military often face an uphill fight. When the Air Force announced plans in 1994 to establish a jrotc unit in Worcester, a working-class city of 172,000 in central Massachusetts, parents and others opposed to the plan swung into action. Forming a group called the Worcester Coalition to Stop jrotc, they staged angry confrontations at school-board meetings, held protest vigils outside school offices, and bombarded the local newspaper with letters to the editor. But school administrators, strapped for cash and eager for alternatives, sided with the Air Force, approving jrotc programs at Burncoat High and two other schools.
Since then, opponents have continued to protest, holding a vigil outside school offices each year on Good Friday. jrotc, they say, is designed to enlist kids at an impressionable age and encourage them to join the military. “If people are indoctrinated in militarism as teens, a time of hope and dreams, where are they going in the future?” asks Scott Shaffer-Duffy, a member of the pacifist group Catholic Worker and a founding member of the Worcester coalition.
When I visit Burncoat High, a double line of students in baggy jeans and T-shirts are slouching in front of the building. Then a young man with frosted hair pivots an about-face. “Preseeennnnt arms!” he commands — and the jrotc “airmen” are transformed into a well-oiled marching machine. Four of them step forward in a rehearsed ritual, carefully unfolding the American flag and raising it up the flagpole until it ripples in the autumn breeze. Classmates disembarking from yellow buses take little note of the pageantry as they hustle by.
The jrotc curriculum covers a variety of subjects, from personal hygiene and job applications to military history and the importance of the flag. Character education “is a big part of what we do,” says retired Air Force Lt. Colonel Henry Cyr, an instructor with the program in Worcester. “In addition to leadership and citizenship, we do a lot in the area of life skills: financial management, public speaking, survival, and map reading.”
I ask ninth-grader Dariana Schultz why she enrolled in the program. “I think rotc is good for people who wanna do things in their lives but are having trouble,” says Schultz, a 14-year-old with straightened black hair and a broad smile. “I figured if I really wanted to do something with my mind, this would guide me through high school.”
Even parents wary of letting soldiers lead their children have come to respect the program. “My wife and I are deeply suspicious of many of the deeds that we associate with the U.S. military around the world,” says Howie Fain, a union representative whose sons are both airmen at Burncoat. “But ironically, rotc has been a zone of peace for them. It has been an incredible counterweight to the violence whirling around them. Frankly, we were surprised by what a difference this has made.”
Almaz Teare, an Eritrean refugee, says the program has helped her 16-year-old son Paulos, an airman at Burncoat. “It’s like another family to us here,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done without them. It’s not only that they learn basic things, but they learn about structuring their life, behavior, and how to get along with other people.” Teare says that when her son encounters problems in school, “I just call the colonel or sergeant, we talk about it, and they talk to my son and sort it out.”
But other parents worry that the discipline comes at too great a price. The military “catches you when you’re young, and it all sounds so wonderful,” says Pete Hollis, the father of two high-school boys and a local Marine combat veteran who spoke out in opposition to the Worcester jrotc programs. “Their business is to fight wars, and they don’t care how they get recruits.” Hollis offers a blunt warning to his neighbors who support the military expansion into public schools: “I just hope your friends don’t die in a war because they end up getting recruited as a result of this.”
Worcester is not the only community where veterans like Hollis have joined the fight to block jrotc. The U.S. Marines met resistance from some of their own when they arrived in New York’s capital city in the spring of 2000 with a plan to launch a jrotc program at Albany High School. Lt. Colonel Frank Houde, who retired after 20 years in the Air Force, learned of the plan from his neighbor, an ex-Marine. Houde, a former pilot in Vietnam, is no pacifist. He says he objects to the program because it misrepresents itself to kids in their formative years.
“The people who are for this often say it is ‘leadership’ training,” he says. “But it is really followership training. Most people who go into jrotc will not become officers. They will receive dead-end jobs and a low rank. If you do go into the military, it will ensure that you are on the front lines and could get killed.”
Houde and other veterans were joined by members of the Albany Friends Meeting and the local Catholic Worker group. “Military programs promote obedience rather than leadership,” the Quakers declared in a statement. “They foster a culture of war and violence rather than peace. We prefer that young people get credits in serious academic subjects.”
Opponents focused their attack on jrotc by challenging the quality of the curric-ulum. When the Marines failed to provide a textbook that would be used in the course, critics cited racial stereotypes in the standard first-year Army jrotc textbook to make their point. In a section on “brain power,” the textbook asserts that whites, who are said to be “left-brain individuals,” prefer “being on time,” while “right dominant” African Americans prefer “a good time.” Opponents also questioned why the school would allow jrotc instructors, who lack state teaching certification, to teach a credit-bearing course — a concern cited by the National Education Association in a 1997 resolution urging that jrotc curriculum and instructors meet “all local and state educational standards and policies.”
Students at Albany High School also joined the fight. I meet Zach London, a lanky 16-year-old, in the school’s brick courtyard. London and several of his classmates organized a petition drive, gathering 600 signatures of students opposed to jrotc. “The Marines picked this school because it’s an inner-city school, and there are a lot of kids who are poor,” he says. “jrotc comes in and tells them that their best option for the future is to go into the military.” It is lunchtime, and our conversation is punctuated several times by fights that send waves of students scurrying to watch, and security officers sprinting to intervene.
London shrugs off the melees. “Oh, that happens all the time,” he says.
London and his classmates may be inured to school violence, but the Albany School Board is not. Officials considering the jrotc plan became concerned when the Marines proposed a curriculum that included classes in marksmanship. Nearly half of all jrotc units run by the Army include an optional course in weapons training, but several Albany students had already been prosecuted for bringing guns to school. “The whole issue of guns and training young people about guns didn’t sit right with some of us,” says Theresa Swidorski, a school-board member. “We are supposed to be a safe school, and no guns are allowed.”
On the day London and other students were scheduled to hold a rally against jrotc, he was called into the principal’s office and informed that the superintendent had canceled the program for lack of interest. In the wake of the student organizing, only 10 students had signed up. It was a shocking victory: Students and community activists had taken on the U.S. Marines, and won. “In the end, jrotc is a little too militaristic,” says Swidorski, “and not up to snuff curriculum-wise to meet muster.”
Despite the protests, the military continues to expand into public schools at an unprecedented clip. In the new defense budget, Congress wants to eliminate a current cap that limits jrotc to 3,500 units, allowing the program to proliferate at will. There are already 600 schools across the country on a waiting list, eager to enlist.
The next frontier for jrotc can be found in Madero Middle School, located in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. Middle schools have rarely been involved with jrotc, since by federal statute the program is intended for students in grades 9 through 12. But Chicago has gotten around this stricture by creating and running its own jrotc-style “leadership programs” in 16 middle schools, without federal sanction. “I think we have a great program focused on teaching character, values, and leadership,” says Lt. Colonel Mills, the jrotc director in Chicago. “And if we have the opportunity to present ourselves at an earlier age, all the better.”
That is precisely what worries critics. Most of the middle-school programs are held after classes let out for the day. Cadets as young as 11 wear uniforms, learn about military history and citizenship, listen to lectures about preventing drug abuse, and perform in a color guard. But Madero Middle School has taken the concept further: It offers a “school within a school” academy in which the youngest cadets attend classes together, including a daily leadership class taught by a retired Army sergeant. Students are promised a spot in jrotc when they go on to high school — effectively creating a military program that will encompass half of their school years, from their preteens until they are eligible to enlist in the armed forces.
One morning at Madero, not long after the September 11 attacks, I ask a class of 35 sixth- and seventh-graders how many of them hope to go into the military. All but seven raise their hands. I point out that as military personnel, it will be their job to fight wars such as the one in Afghanistan. I ask how they felt about that.
David Ruvalcaba, a pint-size 11-year-old, exclaims that he would like to be a soldier “because it’s cool when you defend your country.” Twelve-year-old Elver Patino adds, “I wanna go to the military because you get paid to go to college. I heard that in the commercials.”
A cheerful 13-year-old named Lydia Banda thrusts her hand into the air. “I wanna go into the military because I see it in the movies and it seems fun,” she declares. “And when the war is over, you get famous and you make a lotta money.” Her classmates giggle and nod their heads in agreement.
With the advent of the “war on terrorism,” the issue of prepar-ing children for careers in the military has taken on a new seriousness. So far, the promise of jrotc — that military discipline can help solve the problems of troubled kids and struggling schools — rests largely on faith in the military’s image as a can-do troubleshooter. The program has certainly helped some students, who say the military has provided them with the discipline and values they felt were missing in their lives. But perhaps the biggest beneficiary has been the military itself: With nearly half of all cadets eventually joining the service, jrotc has extended the military’s recruiting reach into thousands of public schools. In the battle for the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s soldiers, at least, the armed forces are clearly winning.
The military has succeeded in large part, opponents say, because troubled students often have few other options. For students who don’t fit in on the football field or the yearbook staff, Junior rotc offers a sense of belonging in an otherwise alienating environment. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the school needs something for these kids who join jrotc, something where you take tougher kids and find a niche for them,” says Pete Hollis, the Marine veteran who fought the program in Worcester. “There have to be alternatives. I just wish it weren’t jrotc.”