Although military schools have been around for generations, they’ve undergone changes that have attracted little attention. The lack of publicity does a disservice to the students who would otherwise thrive in the culture of discipline and respect that characterizes these institutions.
Once overwhelmingly operated as private boarding schools, military academies appealed to parents who believed they instilled in their sons the wherewithal that public schools did not. The Vietnam War marked the beginning of their decline in number. New York State, which once was home to 40 military schools, has only one remaining, the New York Military Academy, and it is expected to close its doors soon. (Although it is located seven miles from West Point, it should not be confused with the United States Military Academy there.)
But taking their places are public military schools that have opened in major cities within the past five years or so. The Philadelphia Military Academy, for example, serves students from grades 9 through 12. Chicago has six public military schools representing all four branches of the service. The city also has military academies within regular high schools. Public and charter military schools have opened in California, Minnesota, Maryland and Florida, with other states expressing interest.
Critics of these schools charge that they function as little more than a way to market the military to poor and working-class minority students. They further maintain that high school is not the proper time for young people to be indoctrinated into the military culture. What they don’t understand is that some students want and need the structure and discipline. These students find in the military a sense of belonging that they never experienced before.
The criticism may also be the result of confusing military schools, whether private or public, with the boot camps that became popular not too long ago as tough-love institutions for wayward students. The latter were often little more than harsh, punitive places that broke the spirit of students, and sometimes broke their health or took their lives.
Character and leadership, of course, can be developed in many different ways. A setting that is a panacea for one young person is a disaster for another. But this assessment is not limited to military schools. It applies to traditional public schools, charter schools and parochial schools. So before writing military schools off, reformers need to take into account the different needs and interests of students.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.