Quasi-military public high schools offer a safe environment, academic excellence—and a surprising focus on the whole child.
Last fall, the Washington Post ran a dispiriting set of articles about Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. The articles caught my eye because Coolidge is my alma mater, circa 1959. The stories featured a student who was bright but unmotivated and perpetually skating on thin ice academically, well-intentioned parents who were clueless about the fact that their son frequently skipped class, teachers who struggled to capture the attention of their students and maintain order in the classroom, and a central school administration so inept that it routinely registered students in courses that they had already passed. According to one 12th grader,
Coolidge is just like a zombie zone. You see these kids walking in the hallway; that's because they have no other choice. Because they feel like when they're in class, the teachers don't connect, and you don't want to feel dumb. (Parker, 2007).
A Coolidge social sciences teacher offered a similarly downbeat appraisal: "The classes are not going anywhere, and the students are not going anywhere" (Parker, 2007).
Federal and state reform efforts have yet to change the Coolidge High Schools of America. Far from leaving no child behind, the mantra of these deeply flawed schools seems to be survival of the most resilient.
It does little good to point the finger of blame at students, parents, communities, educators, or schools. But it also makes no sense to perpetuate the mismatch between what these schools offer and what their students need. For the millions of youngsters who are faring miserably in public schools as we know them, we urgently need new approaches.
The U.S. military is one promising place to look for insights and ideas. After all, the military enjoys a well-deserved reputation for reaching, teaching, and training young people who were rudderless. What's more, for many years various branches of the military have either operated or collaborated with public schools in operating alternative schools, schools within schools, extracurricular programs, and youth corps for dropouts.