Guarded Optimism at OMI 

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

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"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."

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