School Choice & Charters

Boys in Formation

By Text & Photography By James W. Prichard — June 18, 2003 6 min read
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Two rural highways form a junction in the heart of this Norman Rockwell- like town. For almost two centuries, they have been traveled by young men from all over the world, destined for the Carson Long Military Institute.

Located on 56 acres north of town, Carson Long is a traditional military school, balancing the same challenges boys have faced since its inception in 1837 with new issues brought about by the changes of time. Although the all- male institute is one of the oldest boarding schools in the nation, it first added military training to the curriculum under Edward L. Holman in 1919, after the First World War. Currently, the institute is presided over by his son, Col. Carson E.R. Holman, an Army veteran who spent four years on active duty and 26 years in the Reserves.

Fashioned as an old-style military school, Carson Long tries to balance the needs boys have had since its inception with new challenges brought about by the changes of time.

“Carson Long’s about education,” says Holman, a fatherly figure whose erect bearing and purposeful stride nevertheless snap boys to attention. “We want to give the best education we can. The military program helps reinforce the education program by instilling self-discipline.”

More than 200 boys enroll annually at Carson Long. To document the experience of a private military education, Education Week visited the school throughout the 2002-03 school year.

The 6th through 12 graders depart their public school systems for Carson Long for such reasons as getting poor grades or “running with the wrong crowd.” For some, parents were not around to teach them a respect for authority or basic life skills. Others come here to New Bloomfield to learn leadership skills and gain confidence. Some are simply interested in the military.

“Ninety-nine point five percent are here to get a better education or improve their grades,” says Holman, 73. “Parents are asking us to get their kids through high school or get them into college.”

Carson Long revolves around the idea that a military education should be available to everyone. The $12,900 annual price tag, though significant, is only about half that of most military schools and is one of the features that make the school unusual and relatively accessible.

“We love the Abe Lincoln philosophy, ‘God loves the average man because he made so many of them,’” says Holman. “We’ve always tried to provide a quality education for the average kids with parents who have an average income, ... and we want to inspire the average boy to do above-average work.”

Military schools, in general, are quick to point out that they are not dumping grounds for America’s troubled youths. Boot-camp-style schools, or other kinds of secure facilities, have picked up many of the boys and girls who once would have been targeted for military schools.

Candidates who have been expelled from their schools, have police records, or have behavioral or psychological disorders are not accepted at Carson Long, or at most other military schools, for that matter. The boys who apply to Carson Long must also have the desire to attend the school.

While other military schools now accept girls, Carson Long has retained its boys-only policy. Unlike other institutions that went coed because of declining enrollments, Carson Long has always been able to fill its seats, officials here say. They also point to the expense of building the facilities needed to accommodate girls. What’s more, faculty members and alumni alike believe girls would be a distraction the boys don’t need.

A majority of Carson Long graduates attend college. Of the 14 seniors in the smaller-than-usual class of 2002, all went to college; about 85 percent of a graduating class typically go.

“We’re not a training ground for the military,” Holman says adamantly. “We are basically a college-preparatory school.”

The curriculum reflects that. With glee club and drum corps almost the only evidence of the arts on campus, students’ schedules are packed with the standard regimen of mathematics, science, social studies, English, and foreign languages. The school also offers English as a second language and limits its technology courses to keyboarding.

At the core of the military education is the U.S. Army’s Junior ROTC program, known at Carson Long as Leadership Education Training, or LET. All cadets must take the daily JROTC class.

“The mission of the program is to make the kids better citizens,” points out retired Lt. Col. Samuel Butler, a senior Army instructor. The JROTC program, like those programs at the institute’s public school counterparts, teaches a variety of topics from the management of finances to conflict. And, according to Butler, it strives to instill the Army’s core values of integrity, loyalty, and honor.

Carson Long follows military discipline. Cases warranting serious disciplinary action go through the faculty chain of command. Cadets are expected to deal with what are deemed lesser offenses, such as insubordination, within their own ranks.

Teaching at the institute is a multifaceted task.

“We’re definitely an old-fashioned school,” acknowledges Holman. “Most military schools have three staffs: a teaching staff, a tactical staff, a dormitory staff. We have one set that does all three. Our teachers are with the kids from 7 in the morning until 9:45 at night. We spend more time with the boys than a parent or a public school teacher often would.”

Many of the instructors—all but four of the 24 are male—are married and have children, and live in apartments attached to the dormitories. Only four have prior military experience. They retain the titles they held in the military, while the other faculty members start out as “lieutenants.”

“It’s like going from just being married to having a family of 200,” says Craig Martel, a health and science teacher. He and his wife live in an apartment connected to the Barracks, the dormitory housing the youngest cadets.

“In essence, you’re a mom and dad for seven months,” says the teacher, who just completed his fourth year at Carson Long. “We have guys in the high school that we’re all but surrogate parents for. ... It gives you the opportunity to be involved as much as you want in their lives.”

As compensation for overseeing the dorms, faculty members get free accommodations.

The popularity of military schools has rolled with public sentiment. The beginning of World War II and the end of the Great Depression fostered growth for such schools. Public opinion turned south, though, during the Vietnam era, and numerous military schools closed.

From their heyday of more than 900 military schools between 1783 and 1914, about 40 remain.

Speculation exists that the future of precollegiate military schooling lies in the charter school movement. Military day schools are cropping up across the nation, in the form of public school charters in Chicago and Oakland, Calif. In Prince George’s County, Md., meanwhile, a regular public military school that opened this past year is so popular it has a waiting list for students who live outside the attendance zone.

Still, schools like Carson Long are quick to point out that the training offered at a day school tends to be enforced only for those half-dozen or so hours students are on campus.

Holman doesn’t seem worried about the fate of his institution. “As long as parents are interested in education,” the colonel says, “there will always be military schools and a Carson Long.”

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