Guarded Optimism at OMI 

Mayor Brown's military charter school hasn't flunked out...yet.

"Cadet," Mary Ann Norman yells, her voice cutting through the silent classroom. "Cadet, please sit up!" Norman, an English teacher at the Oakland Military Institute, gets up from behind her desk, walks over and taps one of her students on the shoulder. The twelve-year-old African-American boy, sleep heavy on his face, immediately raises his head. Norman, a slender woman with caramel skin and wavy black hair, gives the boy a stern look, glances at his blank exam, and places a pencil on his desk. "Now, get started," she says.

She surveys her classroom as she strolls up and down between the rows of desks. The other students, all sitting upright, diligently work on their exams. She glances back at Tatrell Sims, a slightly built young man neatly dressed in his military-style uniform, and watches as his head falls back onto the desk. A few students glance at him and smirk.

The Oakland Military Institute, a charter school located in the former army base in West Oakland, is explicitly aimed at helping students like Tatrell, a former Oakland public school student who spent years being bumped from school to school because of his apparent "behavioral problems." His teachers said that he continuously caused class disruptions, pulled school fire alarms, got into fights, and started arguments with other students. Tatrell has attended three different schools in just the last two years. Now he is one of 162 students attending school in the collection of portable classrooms that make up OMI. He is wearing a uniform, and marching in formation. Unfortunately he is still at risk of flunking out.

A regular OMI school day begins as the sun rises at 7:30 and ends as it sets at 4:30. In between, students attend seven 45-minute classes, plus an hour of military drills and a mandatory study hall period during which they are required to complete daily homework. Every morning the cadets salute the flag before marching in formation to their classrooms. They are expected to have their uniforms neatly ironed, their boots polished, and their pencils already sharpened by the time class begins.

For many of OMI's seventh grade students, that kind of discipline took a lot of getting used to. "It is hard coming from an Oakland public school to a military school," Tatrell said. "You got to get used to it. Oakland public schools don't give a lot of discipline. This school gives a lot of discipline."

While private military schools have been drilling discipline into students for decades, the Oakland Military Institute is only one of three public military schools in the nation (the others are in Chicago and Richmond, Virginia) and so it represents one of the first tests of whether a curriculum of push-ups and marching -- as well as English and math -- can turn around a troubled inner-city student like Tatrell Sims.

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has staked much of his reputation on the hope that it can. Administered by the California National Guard, the school has been Brown's primary response to the beleaguered state of Oakland's public schools, which a recent study found to be among the worst academic performers in the state with students from every grade level scoring consistently lower than the national average in every category.

No one questions the idea that Oakland's public school system faces serious problems, of course. One out of four high school students drops out. Of the students who do graduate, fewer than a fifth are able to qualify for the state university in the system. Nearly 75 percent of middle school students read at a level below the national average. Nor do many people question the supposition that inadequate discipline is contributing to the problem.

"The real idea behind the military academy came from my experience in high school and college," said the Jesuit-educated Brown. "I wanted to create a structured environment where everyone has the same goal: to go to a university." Brown believes the educational experiment represented by OMI will result in improved test scores, and will produce students ready for top universities. But critics point out that all this comes at a cost: The Oakland Military Institute spends almost twice as much per pupil as the city's traditional public schools. With 54,000 Oakland students to educate, they argue, it's a waste to spend millions of dollars on fewer than 200 children per grade.

So far, Brown has not been deterred, either by controversy or bureaucratic roadblocks. Rejected by both the Oakland and Alameda County school boards in his attempt to secure a charter for OMI, Brown went to the state Board of Education, which finally approved the school's charter. He then garnered $3.3 million in financial support from Senator Dianne Feinstein and Governor Gray Davis. Each portable classroom is equipped with a computer center consisting of seven to ten computers. The school has a library, a cafeteria, and a computer lab. The teachers earn five to ten percent more than their Oakland public school counterparts, and the thirty-member staff includes members of the California National Guard, as well as a nurse, a counselor, a school psychiatrist, and a special education resource specialist.

Last November, OMI students completed their first trimester of military-style instruction, the school's first test of academic achievement. In such charged, and changing, circumstances, it's worth asking whether Jerry Brown's experiment is working.

If you were a teacher at OMI, you would watch your students march into your classroom every day, wearing neat uniforms and shiny black leather boots. You would wait until they were sitting quietly, with their hands on top of their desks and their bodies facing forward, before beginning class. And, like history teacher Gianna Polk, you might find yourself wondering if your students are actually learning the things you have been teaching them since the school year began.

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