As far as Tom Holmes was concerned, it was bad enough that his teenage son, Tommy, managed to be late going from one class to another 68 times during his freshman year at a pricey private school in Manhattan. Worse, school officials didn't tell him about his son's behavior until after the school year was over.
"I said, 'That's it, I'm not paying $20,000 a year for this,' " says Mr. Holmes, who was also concerned about his son's low grades and the friends with whom he was spending time.
Holmes and his wife decided their son desperately needed a learning environment that provided structure, discipline, and responsibility. They found what they were looking for at the New York Military Academy (NYMA), a private school where their son ended his sophomore year with four A's and three B's.
The Holmeses aren't the only parents turning to college-preparatory schools run by ex-military officers as a way to get their children motivated. After years of post-Vietnam War decline, military academies across the country are thriving, with enrollments at near or full capacity.
"I get calls every day from parents who are not happy with their kids, who feel they're not performing up to their potential, or they're not happy with the schools where they are because they're undisciplined or the academic standards are too low," says Dr. Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieu-
Military Schools Thrive Again
tenant colonel and the executive director of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools (AMCS).
"They have somehow gotten the impression that a military school can help them with one or both problems," he says. "We agree."
Like other private schools, military academies stress academic achievement. But they do it in a strict environment - complete with uniforms, polished shoes, saluting, drills, merits and demerits, perfectly made beds, and almost no free time.
"We teach the five R's," says NYMA's superintendent, retired Army Maj. Gen. James Lyle, in a promotional video. "Reading, writing, arithmetic, respect, and responsibility."
The training starts early at the 84-acre campus set in the rolling hills of the Hudson River Valley. Last week, before classes began, some 130 new students - or cadets, as they're called - spent day after day in their regulation gray-and-maroon 'PT' (physical training) outfits. Uniforms come later.
Lined up in platoons around a grassy quadrangle, they learned to march as older students drilled them to the sing-song military cadence of "Left,... left, right, left." And they pored over the cadet manual, with its rules and regulations ("A cadet will neither lie, cheat, nor steal"), guiding every aspect of their life at NYMA.
"Parents know we'll put their kids in a structured environment and require them to obey the rules," he said in an interview. "They get up when we tell them to get up, they go to bed when we tell them to go to bed, and they go to class when we tell them to go to class. There's maybe one hour during any given day where they can even think about watching TV."
Discipline back in vogue
Military academies date back to the early 1800s, a period when there were few public schools. After reaching a peak this century of 100 or so in the mid-1950s, dozens of military schools were forced to close in the wake of the Vietnam War, their enrollments hard hit by the military's decline in public favor.
But in recent years, as concern among parents over the quality of public education has grown, military academies have experienced a resurgence in popularity. AMCS has 42 members: six colleges; six junior colleges with affiliated secondary schools; and 30 schools ranging in grade levels from kindergarten to high school, with enrollments that range from about 88 students to 800. (Many, but not all, of the schools are co-ed.)
In addition, the first new academy to be built in more than 30 years is scheduled to open in Virginia in 2000. And at least two other new schools are under consideration in Nevada and New York, according to AMCS's Colonel Sorley.
At the New York Military Academy, founded in 1889 in Cornwall On Hudson, enrollment is 270 this year, up more than 10 percent from last year, according to admissions director George Naron. The school has just launched a 10-year, $10 million campaign to improve its facilities and attract new students, with a total enrollment goal of 450.
Superintendent Lyle and his staff are quick to point out that military schools aren't for everyone. Even though academies have a reputation for taking students with disciplinary problems - and turning many of them around - Lyle says he doesn't want to take "any student who doesn't want to be here." Last year, he says, some 20 students withdrew because they couldn't adjust to the school's rigorous structure, and another 20 were dismissed for disciplinary problems.
And there are parents who would never dream of sending their children to a military school or college, arguing that the rigid structure inhibits creativity and independent thinking. Marnie Andrews, a southern California actor whose 18-year-old son, Henry, just started his freshman year at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., says she never would have sent him to a military academy.
"My son's a nonconformist," she says. "There is no way I would try to force him into a uniform, or uniformed behavior."
Even those students who do succeed at military schools say it's far from fun. Tommy Holmes, whose leadership qualities landed him a spot this year in charge of a platoon of 25 fifth- to eighth-graders, says it's hard to adjust to the military lifestyle and difficult to be away from his family and friends. But NYMA, he says, "is a lot better for me" than the private school he attended in Manhattan.
"It prepares you for college," he says. "It teaches you about leadership. It kind of prepares you for life."
Sixteen-year-old Tanika Griffith, who holds the second-highest-ranking student post in the school, is one of 30 girls at NYMA. Now in her third year, she says she had to fight her parents to get permission to go to a military school. "They were like, 'You want to go where? What is on your mind?' " she says.
But Tanika insisted on having her way. Fed up with crowded public schools in her hometown of Edison, N.J., she won a scholarship to help pay for her $17,000-a-year tuition at NYMA. Today, with a 3.2 grade point average, she's starting to look at colleges. Her parents, she says, "are so proud of me."
Like students at other military academies, only a small percentage of NYMA graduates go on to careers in the armed forces. NYMA's alumni list, for example, includes businessman Donald Trump, actor Troy Donahue, composer Stephen Sondheim, and musicians Les Brown and Johnny Mandel.