Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=212272
Story Retrieval Date: 12/22/2014 9:41:30 PM CST
Meghan Anne Bunchman/MEDILL
Every morning, North Side resident Kellie Erazo commutes an hour and a half to attend Phoenix Military Academy. The three-hour round-trip commute is well worth her time, she says, because the school offers a high-performance environment. Not only does her academy excel academically, says the high school senior, but it also develops intangible leadership skills – of teamwork, loyalty, integrity and tact – among the cadets.
At the East Garfield Park military academy she attends, where 428 cadets dressed in army uniforms adorned with epaulets and flag pins filter through the doors daily, Erazo says she fits right in.
“Phoenix Military Academy, I think, is one of the best schools,” she said. “Other schools can produce good scholars but Phoenix actually produces leaders.”
For these cadets, military school is not a punishment, it’s a reward.
CPS operates a total of six military academies, which operate under the school system’s “Chicago Leadership Program,” provide an alternative to conventional CPS high schools. The military academies, the oldest of which opened in 2000, are open to any CPS students, and welcome youths who are seeking structure.
For Erazo and many others, the academies represent a chance to succeed.
Based on Chicago Public Schools data, on average, JROTC cadets academically outperform their CPS counterparts.
Phoenix Academy is a “level one” school, which means it is one of the system’s top-performing schools.
Senior Chalant Harris, who transferred to the Marine Math and Science Academy from North Lawndale College Preparatory last year, says her time at the academy has been more structured and has challenged her academically as well.
“My neighborhood school is Douglass,” Harris said, referring to Frederick A. Douglass Academy High School. “It’s just not the school for me. I didn’t feel like it could academically challenge me or meet any of my standards.”
In addition to the six military academies, which have about 2,700 full-time cadets, CPS offers more than 40 high school JROTC, or “Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps” programs. In these programs, students from conventional high schools receive JROTC training –- such as military history or drill -- in lieu of physical education. Just under 10,000 high school cadets are enrolled within one of the Chicago JROTC programs.
Although the academies have been part of the CPS system for a little over a decade, the program itself dates back much farther: The United States Army Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps was developed in 1916 under the National Defense Act. Under this measure, high schools were loaned military equipment and the mentorship of both active and retired military personnel. The program was later broadened to include all services, and most active duty instructors were replaced with retired military.
As the U.S. Code spells out, "the purpose of Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps is to instill in students in United States secondary educational institutions the value of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility, and a sense of accomplishment."
Even some students who didn’t exactly choose to attend a military high school say their time there has better prepared them for the future.
In 2011, the average CPS junior scored a 17 on the nationwide ACT exam, while the average military cadet –only five academies’ scores were published— achieved a stronger score of 17.8.
Victor Rivera, a senior at the Marine Math and Science Academy, says his academy instructors have helped prepare him, both physically and mentally, for his next step. And that step’s a big one: Rivera enlisted in the Marine Corps in August, but won’t report for active duty until he graduates in the spring.
Rivera says he “actually took the ASVAB test the same day as the ACT.”
All military enlistees must take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, or ASVAB. The wide-ranging test helps measure service members’ prospects for future success both academically and occupationally.
No big deal, according to Rivera, who says ASVAB is “pretty much the ACT, just with more subjects.”
Academy students not only get better scores, but more of them advance to higher education. CPS data show that the college enrollment rate for cadets from four of the academies (data isn’t yet available on the two newest academies) is 61.2 percent, While students at regular CPS schools averaged 59.5 percent.
Erazo, the Phoenix Military Academy senior, dreams of attending a top university: “My plan is to go to the United States Military Academy at West Point.”
Others, like Diana Antunez, plan to attend a civilian school. “I will be attending the University of Minnesota,” said Antunez, who intends to study computer engineering.
The stronger discipline the academies demand shows up in significantly stronger attendance, as well. According to CPS report cards, the average attendance for CPS students in 2011 was 84.3 percent, while the six military academies averaged 91.9 percent.
Colonel Otto Rutt, commandant of the Marine Math and Science Academy, says that the cadets’ high participation levels are a result of living by the 14 Marine Corps leadership traits, including accountability, loyalty and integrity.
Similarly, 2011’s freshmen class at CPS had an average “on track rate” of 72.6 percent, while the military academies’ freshman averaged a dramatically stronger , 85.1 percent.
The CPS considers freshmen to be on track if, by the end of the school year, they have acquired five course credits and failed no more than one semester core-subject class. It’s a telling number: “Freshmen who are designated as on track are three and a half times more likely to graduate from high school in four years than students who are off track,” according to CPS.
In addition to higher academic achievements, backers say JROTC cadets gain intangible leadership skills develop during their time at the academies. COL. Kevin Kelley, director of military instruction for the entire JROTC program, says that all JROTC instructors seek to develop character development and accountability with in the cadets.
“We try to put the cadets in a position where they can make decisions,” Kelley said. “And whether it’s a right or wrong decision, they learn from that decision. So there are very many teachable moments that happen when a student is placed in that leadership position.”
“I wanted to come to a school that I knew would challenge me not only academically but me as a person,” said transfer student Harris, at the Marine academy.
She’s not alone. “I broke out of my shell here,” said Lorenzo Toscano, adding that his time at Phoenix Military Academy taught him how to be a leader. In his fourth year, Toscano is command sergeant major of his battalion, which he notes is the equivalent of student government vice president.
In the past, “I was more of a person who really didn’t talk to anybody. I was more to myself,” the Southwest Side resident recalls.
“In here, I realized that I could trust people.”