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.

"I'm frustrated," said Polk as she handed students back their final exam grades. "Many students did poorly while only a few did well." She paused and sighed deeply as she glanced at the exams. "We went over this material -- over and over again."

Polk previously taught at Fresno's Clovis West High School, nationally recognized as a high-achieving school. "While I was at Clovis West, I was their star teacher," Polk said. "I was sent on many teacher conferences and seminars that enlightened me. In part that is why I wanted to go to OMI. I thought I could use these strategies to help these students."

Before coming to OMI, Polk was cautioned to expect that some of her students would not be working at their grade level. But once the school year began, she said, she and other teachers found that OMI's curriculum is based on the assumption that all students would able to work at grade level; however, most of them can't. Polk says that OMI administrators are pressing teachers to maintain a rigorous curriculum, but she's finding that her students aren't able to understand the questions being asked of them on a basic seventh grade history exam.

"We need to regroup and discuss how to make sure they know how to retain information," she said. "Most of these kids don't have the basics to operate on a seventh-grade level," said Polk. "We are told to teach them on a seventh-grade level, but many of these kids are below a third-grade reading level. They can be disciplined all you want, but it is not going to make them read."

Polk believes that she and other teachers should be focusing on improving students' reading and writing to ensure that they understand what is being asked of them in every subject. But she said OMI's administrators don't want to hear discouraging observations about the students' learning. "We can't go full speed ahead and teach these kids things they can't comprehend," said Polk.

Rick Moniz, OMI's academic director, said he recognizes that there are a lot of students who read below grade level, but the school must move forward. "The curriculum is approved by California state standards as a seventh grade exclusive academy," he said. "However, many students aren't up to grade level, so we are working on that."

Moniz, who previously taught sixth and seventh grades for six years at St. Louis Bertrand, an Oakland Catholic school, said that he is not unsympathetic to his teachers' complaints. The school's math teacher spent an entire trimester reviewing math, he said, and OMI is bringing a phonics intervention program to help kids with reading. "It is a 100-day program, and our goal is that by the end of the year most of the students will be reading at level. So we are trying."

"Eighty percent of the school's plan is working and the other twenty percent of it is continuing to work with our cadets," said General Ralph Marinaro, a stout raspy-voiced Italian speech professor at the College of Alameda, and OMI's interim superintendent. "Basically we are teaching them how to read and write better. But in comparison to most public schools, this school is exemplary."

Roy Griffin, OMI's math teacher, is still an enthusiastic supporter of Mayor Brown's vision for the school. "We're creating an environment for students to learn -- not just academically, but how to be outstanding human beings." Griffin, who formerly taught at St. Louis Bertrand, said he was ready to quit teaching altogether after fifteen years, until he heard about Brown's plan to create a public school with a structured and disciplined classroom environment.

For her part, Polk insisted that she also has high hopes for the school and wants to stay at OMI, but said she will leave next year if things don't change. "I owe it to the kids to stay," she said. "But I don't want to parade around like I'm teaching these kids, when I feel they aren't really learning."

Ironically, despite all the talk of military-style discipline on the part of supporters of OMI -- and all the doubts about its efficacy by the school's detractors -- keeping order on the OMI campus has been more of an issue than anyone expected. In part, this is due to the events of September 11, which required a reduction in the manpower that the National Guard could devote to the school. In the school's original design, each class of about 25 students was to be supervised by a National Guard sergeant who would be responsible for discipline in the classroom. But since the September 11 acts of terrorism, many of the school's military staff have been called to war. Four of the eleven sergeants originally assigned to the school are gone, leaving teachers to handle discipline.

"There are a couple of kids who are ruining it for everyone else," said twelve-year-old Cody Kopowski. "The worst thing is how some kids don't seem to care about the opportunity they have." Kopowski, who wants someday to join the Air Force, said he is frustrated at the behavior of some cadets who disrupt learning in the classroom. "I'm a military kind of kid," said Cody with a chuckle. "So the military aspect of the school attracted me."

A red-haired student with blue-grayish eyes and a slight build, Cody is something of a minority at OMI. He is a "straight A" student who convinced his parents to take him out of Montera Junior High so he could attend OMI. He says that he has adjusted quite well to the new environment. "The main difference is that it is like learning at an accelerated pace at OMI," he said. "At Montera, it took us three weeks to a month to get through a subject in our history books. And at OMI it takes us less than a week -- unless there are numerous distractions by cadets."

By most accounts, discipline has been a increasing problem recently, including vandalism of the school's sinks and bathrooms and reports of disruptive behavior by cadets on AC Transit. "Even before the terrorist acts, there was no discipline in the classrooms," said Cara Kopowski, Cody's mother. "There were no sergeants in the classrooms. It got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore, and I wrote a letter to the mayor saying that some kids have to go because they are misbehaving." Fifteen parents signed the letter before she faxed it to the mayor's office; it was the second letter Brown had received from a parent complaining about the conditions at the school. "I understand that this is a new school, but right now it is not better than a regular public school," said Kopowski. Like their colleagues in the city's traditional public schools, OMI teachers are having to take class time to discipline students who disrupt learning.

Mayor Brown agrees that the lack of military personnel in the classrooms is contributing to his charter school's difficulties. "The National Guard hasn't been able to provide sergeants on a daily basis," said Brown. "And the unfamiliarity of the Guard being in a school environment has been a challenge because we want them to get to know the students. So it is a goal that we work at every day."

Walter McCoy, a sergeant assigned to OMI who admits that he often has to jump from classroom to classroom dealing with discipline problems, said that both the mayor and the public are going to have to be patient; it's going to take some time for these kids, most of whom have spent their lives in troubled schools, to be up to par.

"This is a lot different than running soldiers of an older age," said McCoy, a slim, middle-aged African-American man. "From the majority of what I've seen, the discipline is helping some academically. Fifty percent of them are recognizing they want to learn and can learn. Then there is that other twenty percent who are just unruly and wild. We want to educate them, but we can't continue to bang our heads against a wall that is unbreakable." He said some cadets don't have discipline at home and their behavior at school reflects how they act at home. He isn't sure if even a military presence on campus can help those students.

McCoy said he enjoys working with students like Cody Kopowski, whom he described as a model cadet and good student. "He knows what he wants to do and he doesn't mind the structure," he said. "He will step up to get things done -- like a leader. Overall, he just has a good sense of the military." But, then, a "student like Cody" would probably thrive at any school. So it is worth asking if it makes sense to spend $3 million on a public military school for students who are already well equipped to succeed anywhere. "Certainly, charter schools with strong discipline and very clear traditional structure may be helpful for some kids," said Bruce Fuller, UC Berkeley professor of policy analysis for California education. "Whether the military version of that yields strong socialization or higher test scores, I think, is an issue still up in the air."

Basically, Rick Moniz said, most parents are satisfied with the way things are going at OMI. "We had about fifty percent of the parents come in for parent-teacher conferences. ... They are pleased with the discipline. They see our grading is stringent and the grades reflect that. A lot of people from other charter schools have visited OMI and said this is what a charter school looks like in its fourth year. The school looks good on the outside, but the nature of a start-up is dramatically different from a school that has been in operation for ten years. So we have faced some problems." Nevertheless, he said, the school has not detoured from its original purpose and is looking for a new location to accommodate the influx of new seventh graders who will begin attending OMI within two years.

At 7:28 in the morning on a cloudy Monday in October, Tatrell Sims, dressed in army gray pants, a white shirt, black boots, and black hat, briskly walked towards his platoon. As the Stars and Stripes was raised, dozens of cadets struggled to line up under the frowning gaze of a retired Army major. Tatrell proudly held his platoon's flag.

Tatrell leaves his West Oakland home every morning at 6:30, goes to a nearby deli for breakfast and catches the bus to arrive at school on time. After eight hours inside OMI's portable classrooms, he catches the bus home at 4:30 in the afternoon. Upon his arrival home, he does a daily round of household chores before he is allowed to play outside. His mother, Marcia Colbert, says that his new leadership role as a squad leader has made him more serious about completing his work both at school and at home.

For Colbert, a single parent of four, OMI represents her last hope of ensuring that Tatrell gets an adequate education. "I'm a single parent and it is hard," she said. "Tatrell needs a lot of attention at home and at school." Earlier in the year, she said, her son had been causing disruptions, and he was often asked to leave the classroom because he couldn't settle down. "However," she said, nodding her head with the beginnings of a smile upon her face, "recently I heard he has been doing better."

Tatrell and his mother regularly meet with his teachers to discuss his behavior, devise plans, and set daily academic goals for him to succeed. "Right now he is on an academic point system," she said. "I'm trying out everything. When he was in public schools, I wasn't consistent about making him go to bed at the right time and do all his homework. But the school is keeping me strong and it is helping me be consistent." If Tatrell does well in each class, he receives a number of points for which he is rewarded at the end of the week

"At my other school, I use to be a follower, but now I'm a leader," Tatrell said. "I used to believe that if other kids could do bad stuff, I could do it too. But I'm a squad leader now. And I feel good because I never did anything like this before." Tatrell says when he started at OMI he really didn't know what to expect. But after four months, he now knows what it takes to pass the seventh grade and not get kicked out.

"So far the school is working well for Tatrell," Marcia Colbert said. "They are working with him. This is the only school that has gone the extra mile for my kid. They aren't trying to kick him out. They are trying to build up a sense of tolerance in his life. The teachers are trying to work with him, but it is up to him. If he makes it through this first year, hopefully, next year he'll do better."

And so may Jerry Brown's Oakland Military Institute.

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