Guarded Optimism at OMI 

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

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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.

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