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International Students Save N.Carolina Academy From Shutdown

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. One of the oldest military schools in the country is Oak Ridge Military Academy in North Carolina. It's been educating men, and more recently women, for more than a century. But when the recession hit, the school fell on hard times and almost shut its doors. Enrollment plunged to 45 students. Then the school embarked on a new campaign. North Carolina Public radio's Jeff Tiberii reports on what turned Oak Ridge around.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPETS PLAYING)

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: At 6:45 each morning, young cadets wearing army fatigues, berets and combat boots fall into line.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMANDER: Left, left, right, left.

TIBERII: They take attendance and march to the mess hall, one of about 10 brick buildings on a sleepy campus just off a country road. Practices like these date back to 1852. Robert Barbear teaches social studies here. He's been at the school almost half a century.

ROBERT BARBEAR: When I first came, there were very, very few private schools or independent schools anywhere. Now you can throw a pebble out and you can hit 15 or 20 within, like, 15-20 minutes of us. And it's become extremely competitive.

TIBERII: Five years ago, the school president announced Oak Ridge would close. Then, a local family foundation offered a seven- figure lifeline and a new leader began pursuing a new strategy, as the current president, Dan Nobles, explains.

DAN NOBLES: The international is a major piece of that. You know, 25 percent of our cadets are international cadets.

TIBERII: The school has had international students for decades, but never this many. In total, the school now has 80 cadets. They load into the mess hall, fill up plastic cups with juice and pile food onto trays. The boys sport buzz cuts, girls wear their hair coiled in a neat bun. George Fung is one of six cadets from China. The slender eighth-grader with glasses is in his second year here.

And how is it different from schooling in China?

GEORGE FUNG: I study here - it's more easier.

TIBERII: Another Oak Ridge cadet is Isacio Albier. He's a senior and one of six students from Latin America. His family is from Honduras.

ISACIO ALBIER: It was very high in violence and my parents didn't exactly feel confident. They took the proper precautions to ensure my safety.

NOBLES: We have five cadets from Angola, two cadets from the UK, one from Egypt, one from Saudi Arabia.

TIBERII: School President Dan Nobles says families of international students readily pay the $28,000 tuition bill.

NOBLES: That's our financial lifeblood. We operate off of tuition.

TIBERII: The majority of cadets are still American. Many of them are here because they've run into trouble and their families are seeking a school with more structure.

NATHAN FREEMAN: Every day, for at least an hour and a half, I'm studying, doing homework. And before that would be, you know, texting or watching TV.

TIBERII: Nathan Freeman is a senior from a nearby town and says his grades have improved at Oak Ridge because of the regimented structure of the day.

FREEMAN: We have to get up at 6:00. We mop. We clean, we make sure everything is squared away, our uniforms, personal appearance is on point.

TIBERII: Freeman is also the Battalion Commander of the Cadet Core. Think of him as similar to the class president. He's applying to West Point and Virginia Military Institute, as well as nonmilitary state schools. This past spring, out of 29 Oak Ridge graduates, only one enlisted. The rest went to college. In fact, the school has been emphasizing itself as a college prep more than a military prep school. That's helping to attract students. So is the school's efforts to tap existing ties with foreign families to expand enrollment. Again, Dan Nobles.

NOBLES: We've had families who have been very faithful through generation to generation to generation, particularly in China and Nicaragua and Angola. I want to go and visit them because they want me to come over and speak to families that they've talked to that are interested in looking at Oak Ridge.

TIBERII: Nobles' long-term plan is to grow enrollment back to 200 cadets. A shorter-term mission includes a recruitment trip to India next summer. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tiberii in North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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