Military-Style Training Brings 5th Graders to Attention

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At first glance, the camouflage-clad troop appears no different from enlisted soldiers.

Its members march in formation without complaint under a smoldering Alabama sun. They pivot right, then left, then right again at the charge of their commanding officer. Some even raise their hands to salute a recent visitor.

But when the officer halts marching practice to help buckle the sagging pants of one of his troop, it's clear these cadets won't be serving in war-torn nations anytime soon.

Instead, they're bound for middle school.

"Hopefully, they have some discipline now that they didn't have before," said Lt. Michael Buck, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves who helps lead the ROTC-style club at Terry Heights Elementary School here. "We try to teach them to have pride in themselves."

The coed club is believed to be the only elementary school program of its kind in the country. Eighteen 5th graders drill for an hour each week, and another dozen students--both 4th graders and 5th graders--join them for tutoring.

Unlike Junior ROTC programs in high school, the Terry Heights group is not an official, government-sponsored program geared to giving students a taste of military service or the college Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

Instead, it's meant simply to provide the youngsters with the extra confidence and academic know-how they'll need to face 6th grade, says Sgt. Maj. Theodore Tyson, who works in the Army ROTC program at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University here.

In the inner-city neighborhood where the students live, "it's easier to get negative attention," said Sgt. Tyson, who runs the Terry Heights club with the help of several of his ROTC cadets. "This small group we're working with, they're getting the positive attention."

Role Models

Providing the boys and girls with focused attention is exactly what Terry Heights special education teacher Janice Summerhill had in mind when she began the program in September 1996.

The predominantly black, working-class neighborhood served by the 280-student school was sliced in two just a few years before, when the construction of Interstate 585 forced residents out and brought the school's enrollment to a new low. Teachers transferred and grades suffered.

Aware that most of the school's students were being raised in single-parent households, Ms. Summerhill says she became concerned that the principal was the only man on staff at the time.

"I asked myself, 'What can we do for these babies?'" Ms. Summerhill recalled. "It was a struggle that we didn't have another male person here. The children were fatherless, and there were discipline problems."

At the suggestion of a fellow church member, Ms. Summerhill cornered Sgt. Tyson at a stadium concession stand and described the school's troubles before the kickoff of the first Alabama A&M football game of the year. She dared him to be part of the solution.

A career military man always ready for a new challenge, the sergeant rounded up the troops.

Too Young?

By law, an elementary school cannot have an official Junior ROTC chapter. Federal funds are limited to programs for students who have completed the 8th grade, said Jack Muhlenbeck, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Cadet Command, which operates Army ROTC programs.

It's "a case of putting the money where it's most appropriate," Mr. Muhlenbeck said.

Not everyone thinks drill practice in elementary school is a good idea, even when it's unofficial.

After a story describing the Terry Heights program appeared in a local newspaper, a few residents wrote critical letters to the editor, questioning the wisdom of exposing students to military lessons at such a young age.

But the group's sponsors emphasize that they aren't teaching the students anything more warlike than what they could learn in a marching band.

"They will never see a weapon," Sgt. Tyson said. "We will never teach them military tactics. We're using military techniques to teach them discipline, how to listen."

Other elementary administrators in the 24,000-student Huntsville district, eager to bring structure and discipline to their own schools, have asked Sgt. Tyson to sponsor similar programs for their students.

Though he says he only has time to devote himself to one effort, Sgt. Tyson hopes to see the program expand.

"Why would you wait until high school to start an ROTC program?" he said. "You start early, and it's instilled."

Left, Right, Left

"Down by the riv-er, I had a lit-tle walk," the marching 5th graders call out crisply to the beat of their steps. "I ran into 4th grade, I had a lit-tle talk."

By the final practice of the school year, the ROTC club participants have come a long way from the very first marching session, when some students literally did not know right from left. The process of learning how to march and speak in unison has taught the students valuable lessons in listening and patience, Sgt. Tyson says.

But the students say it's just plain fun.

"I think it sounds good," said 11-year-old Anthony Holden. "We've got good rhythm."

"It makes you want to learn," Marquez Patton chimed in.

Still, some complain that the uniforms are too hot, and say that they have no intention of ever joining the Army.

"It would be a lot harder than what we do here," Brittany Batts observed. "Sometimes you got to go to war."

Ms. Summerhill praises the program not only for building student confidence, but also for strengthening the academics at a school with traditionally low state test scores.

One student has even been phased out of special education and into a regular classroom since hitting the books twice a week with the Alabama A&M cadets.

"The students have just blossomed," Ms. Summerhill said.

Lt. Buck says the program has helped him as well. As he prepares to train new Army ROTC recruits without military backgrounds this summer, his volunteer work at the school should come in handy, he says.

"If I can teach a 10-year-old how to march, I can surely teach an 18-year-old the same thing."

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Page 7

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as Military-Style Training Brings 5th Graders to Attention
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