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Oakland Public School Militarization of Youth

Date: Sun, 26 Aug 2001 04:51:24 -0400
Subject: Oakland School's Military Bearing Rankles Some

The military solution to "discipline" and failing schools. Jerry Brown shows his true colors. Wait till you see the drop out rate on this place. If you can't educate 'em, militarize 'em.


Oakland School's Military Bearing Rankles Some
August 24 2001
New York Times

OAKLAND, Calif., Aug. 23 -- The 12-year-olds standing at attention in shiny black boots and crisp tan military uniforms in the chilly morning fog recently were more used to spending their time listening to "Bootylicious" by Destiny's Child. Now they had a new anthem: reveille.

At 7:30 sharp, a taped bugle call, not a school bell, welcomed the cadets, as the students here are called, to the new Oakland Military Institute. This state-sponsored charter school, administered by the California National Guard, is Mayor Jerry Brown's response to the beleaguered state of Oakland's public schools.

In place of homerooms, there are platoons. In place of teachers' names on doors, the rows of portable classrooms bear names like Fort Success, Fort Trustworthy, Fort Cooperation, Fort Justice. A National Guard sergeant in fatigues is posted in every classroom, to help teachers impose a sense of order.

Some have called Mayor Brown's bit of West Point by the Bay -- on a decommissioned Army base in a far- flung industrial stretch of West Oakland waterfront -- a boot camp. But the mayor bristles at the label.

"This is the exact opposite of a boot camp," said the Jesuit-schooled Mr. Brown, once known for his peacenik Zen image. "The goal is to enable every student to qualify for the University of California, Harvard or Yale."

The school, which opened its doors to one incoming class of 160 seventh-graders last week, was granted a state charter -- California's first -- by Gov. Gray Davis, a Brown ally and military school graduate himself. Mr. Davis, a Democrat, stepped in after the school's application for a charter had been denied by the Oakland Unified School District and the Alameda County School Board. The school is operating as an incorporated entity run in partnership between Mr. Brown, the school's chief executive and board president, and the California National Guard.

Financing comes from a $2 million Department of Defense grant procured with the help of Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Representative Jerry Lewis, a Republican, and $1.3 million from the California National Guard. The students are 60 percent male and 90 percent Latino and African-American, and nearly all of them come from Oakland public schools. The institute accepted only students who had not been expelled from their previous schools and who had good attendance records.

Though the school is limited to seventh graders this year, the plans are to gradually enroll 1,200 students through high school. The National Guard runs the morning military drills and the administration; classes, with 27 to 29 cadets each, are taught by regular teachers.

In the famously antimilitary Bay Area, where the art of protest is alive and well, critics have been legion.

"Many of us feel that giving the military, which uses force or threat of force to solve problems, legitimacy through public education is exactly counter to what Oakland needs," said Wilson Riles Jr., a former city council member who is now regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker humanitarian organization.

Bonnie Benard of WestEd, a nonprofit educational research center, questioned allocating $3 million on 160 students. "There's always a search for the quick fix," she said. "Would that we could do this for every one of the 52,000 kids in Oakland."

Jean Quan, a member of the Oakland School Board, said that while she wanted the school to succeed, "it seemed to send the message that kids needed more discipline rather than resources. It doesn't even begin to address the questions we face."

No one disputes the problems facing Oakland's public school system, where one in four high school students drop out. Of the students who do graduate, fewer than a fifth qualify for the state university system. Nearly 75 percent of middle school students read below the national average. (This was the school district that made headlines five years ago with its fleeting embrace of ebonics.)

The mayor, who also wants to start a charter school for the performing arts, defended his new school as "a high-performance environment for training leaders." He has also argued that increased academic performance in one school will instill competitive pressure on the others.

Brig. Gen. Ralph Marinaro, the institute's interim superintendent -- who has a photograph of retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf in his office -- put it this way: "This school is Jerry Brown's line in the sand."

To parents like Jaqueline Louis, 36, a single mother whose son Willis left a troubled middle school in East Oakland, the school is a godsend. "It gives them structure and a good education, which Oakland schools do not offer," she said. "At my son's old school, all the kids see is drug-dealing. Here they'll be too tired to even think about it. This is going to make or break him."

Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California, said the school represented an "odd convergence."

"Jerry Brown's ascetic outlook and his Jesuit belief in minimalism and strict structure," Mr. Fuller said, "has connected with frustration in the black community around lack of structure in the schools and parents' worries about chaos."

Some critics have asserted that the school merely represents the mayor's future political ambitions, giving him a Man of Steel image that contrasts with the more familiar one of tai chi lessons in his downtown loft. Two years ago he rankled liberals by inviting the military to engage in mock war exercises on the waterfront in Hovercraft and choppers.

At the institute, Gianna Polk, 29, a history teacher, seemed unfazed by life in her new school, like the constant presence of Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Ratley. Ms. Polk left a teaching job in Fresno, where the student body was mostly white, to be a mentor to urban minority students. She found out about the school on the Internet.

"As a classroom teacher, you spend 90 percent of your time disciplining," she said. "I thought, `Wow, this will give me an opportunity to spend time teaching actual lessons.' "

In the parking-lot-turned-parade- ground, the cadets are literally learning the drill. "What kids need at this age is to know there is nothing they can't do," Sergeant Ratley said.

Then he turned his attention to his bleary-eyed charges. "Check your feet, shoulder's width apart. Where you been all your life? Wake up!"

© 2001 New York Times corporation

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