OAKLAND, CALIF. — Starting next month, approximately 160 uniformed seventh-graders will march, drill, and drop for push-ups at a controversial new academy. While military schools have been drilling discipline into students for decades, the Oakland Military Institute (OMI) is one of the first public schools of its kind in the country.
As such, it is also one of the first tests of whether push-ups and marching, in between English and physics classes, can turn around a troubled urban school district. And some see a certain irony in the fact that the college preparatory academy is the inspiration of Mayor Jerry Brown, the iconoclastic California liberal who has embraced a number of traditionally conservative ideas during his tenure as Oakland chief.
"The schools where these kids come out of are mediocre at best," Mr. Brown says. "There's no competition and there's inadequate discipline, and therefore they are failing."
Brown believes this educational experiment will improve test scores, instill morals, and produce students that are ready for top universities. But critics say the school is simultaneously too tough on kids and too expensive. With 54,000 students in the Oakland district, they argue, it's a waste to spend millions of dollars on fewer than 200 children per grade.
But Brown has been undeterred by both controversy and roadblocks. Rejected by two East Bay school boards, Mr. Brown went to the state Board of Education, which approved the school. He garnered $3.3 million in financial support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Gov. Gray Davis (D).
There are no strict admission standards. Kids just had to be willing to show up for an interview and write an essay. While OMI will be composed just of seventh-graders this first year, the school plans to expand one grade level a year until it's a complete high school.
The 196 kids who made the first round of cuts started their new academic life by attending a two-week National Guard camp near San Luis Obispo earlier this summer.
Forced to rise with the sun each morning, the kids endured daily marches, rigorous workouts, and tough platoon leaders.
For incoming seventh-grader Tara Miller, doing push-ups every day took some getting used to, but what really bothered her was that the camp cut off contact with parents to punish students for misbehaving. "I feel like they are a little too mean because when someone messes up, everyone suffers," she says.
Students were also taught the basics of discipline by the National Guard. At least 23 kids were sent home before the boot camp finished, and will not be allowed to attend the academy.
"We were able in a very short period of time to get them focused on their future and select those kids who were not serious enough to continue at the school," says National Guard Col. Jeff Davis. "It's a way of instilling in the kids that, if they want to be successful in this world and in the classroom, that they learn to follow instructions."
He added that OMI is unlike the harsh correctional boot camps that have received national attention in recent months. Earlier this month, a 14-year-old boy died at an Arizona camp after falling unconscious in the hot desert. At least 30 children have died at such camps since 1980.
"What we're after is education," Colonel Davis says. "If a kid is unruly in class, they are not going to take him outside and march in the desert until he collapses from lack of water."
Davis says that once the school year starts, the Guard's role will be secondary to the trained and credentialed educators who will teach the kids in the classroom. But a National Guard commandant and a civilian assistant principal will have equal say over the kids' discipline, according to Davis.
School, six days a week
The uniformed kids will spend 10 hours at the school five days a week, and also will attend on Saturdays. In addition to math and English, they will learn military ceremony and how to march. The last 90 minutes of each day will be a designated study hall so the kids can concentrate on their homework before going home. Their school year will run 200 days, which is 20 more than most schools.
"We're going to demand mastery as far as the curriculum goes," says OMI Principal Rick Moniz, noting that the grading scale will be tougher than at traditional schools.
Moniz adds that the military will provide a controlled environment that will enable teachers to focus on academics. The day will be very structured, and the students will be organized into platoons, with students appointed as junior platoon leaders.
In search of discipline
Onyinyechi Ikeme says she didn't get that much out of sixth grade at her former Oakland public school. "The kids are all wild, the teachers aren't that good because they don't have any control over the kids, and we hardly learn anything," she says.
Her father, Nigerian-born Diala Ikeme, hopes OMI will offer a structured education similar to the one he received from Catholic missionaries in Africa. "The status of the public schools here leaves a little to be desired, and that's putting it mildly," he says.
But critics worry about the effect an education structured around the military will have on young minds like Onyinyechi's.
"We feel very strongly that this school, if not promotes, at least legitimizes violence as a legitimate response," says Wilson Riles Jr., regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, a pacifist Quaker organization, in San Francisco. Mr. Riles, who organized opposition to the school, believes that it's inappropriate for 11 and 12-year-olds to be exposed to a military environment and is concerned the kids will learn that shouting and harsh punishments are legitimate solutions to resolving problems.
Riles also says OMI will cost more than $20,000 per student per year - more than twice the amount spent at traditional public schools. He predicts that, without continued financial support from the federal and state level, the school will fade from existence, and Oakland will be left with the same schools that Brown set out to fix.
But Brown disputes the claim, saying that the institute will force other schools to live up to OMI's high academic standards.
"It will put competitive pressure on them, so hopefully the other students will do well," Mr. Brown says.
The mayor acknowledges that he is under pressure to find other funding sources for the school. "The idea is to create excellence and then gather support for that solid program," Brown says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor