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A CMS Military Academy Trying To Dispel Notions of A Boot Camp

Eric Sink

Today is the last day for CMS students to enter the lottery for coveted seats in the district's thirty-seven magnet programs. Most of the magnets will have long waiting lists. But there's one likely exception: Marie G. Davis Military and Global Leadership Academy. Visions of boot camp and drills may keep many students away. But staff and students at Marie G. Davis say that's the wrong idea. 

A morning at Marie G. Davis starts like you'd expect in a military academy. Before class it's formation in the gym for all the school's upper grades. But there's also this. Elementary school kids come up to the school's principal Lawrance Mayes and give him hugs.

"Hey, sweetheart, how's my darling?" he asks one girl. "Hey, Grandpa," says another young student. Grandpa is what the elementary kids call him.

This is the only CMS school with grades kindergarten through 12th. But the military routine only kicks in for high school. That's when students start wearing the olive green JROTC uniform and are organized into squads with a senior serving as a battalion commander.

Eric Sink's uniform is loaded with medals and ribbons. One of his jobs is to sit on the stage at lunch time and keep an eye on things. "This gives us a good vantage point of the entire cafeteria, so we can correct any cadets that aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing," says Sink. Like sitting with their squads, that's a lunch time rule that Sink would rather not have to enforce. But he says the alternative wasn't suitable for a military academy.

"We tried having more freedom in the beginning of the year and the students weren't able to get quiet fast enough and there wasn't enough organization to where everything could get done fast enough and we started missing class time and that was an issue," explains Sink.

Like many of his classmates, military service runs in Sink's family. He wants to be a Navy Seal. He has a nomination to West Point. Administrators say they're careful not to push military careers on any of their students. Assistant Principal Ann Laszewski says the goal is to stress leadership and international studies that prepare students for life after school, whether that's business or the armed forces.

"We emphasize self correction and holding peers accountable for doing the right thing," says Laszewski. Here's what she means: Math students work in teams in Kaz Muhammad's class. But today they're not after an individual test score. "Each group is responsible for their team members learning. The grade they receive is the grade that the group receives. So everyone has a vested interest," explains Muhammad.

Military values of duty, honor and teamwork underpin the curriculum here and students like Jackie Aguilar respond. She's a junior and coming to Marie G. Davis was not her idea. "I was crying. I was like no military, no.  I want to go to a normal high school, Mom," she says. West Charlotte is Aguilar's neighborhood high school and she didn't want to go there. So she applied for several magnet schools, but the only one she landed was Marie G Davis. She's happy about that now. She likes the way it challenges her and her junior class is small, only 35 kids.

One reason the school is small is because it's relatively new, open only since 2008. Another reason, according to Assistant Principal Laszewski, is because it's largely misunderstood. "The first year was rough. Lot of parents thought, 'I'm going to send you to military school.' They thought we were the new boot camp," says Laszewski. "So we had a lot of students here who didn't want to be here, who had a lot of difficult behavior issues. And some of them, unfortunately, with all the help we gave them still just didn't make it through that year."

Now she says every student who enrolls sits down with the principal to understand what the school is about. Last year, Marie G. Davis had a pass rate of 79 percent. That's close to the district's average. There are at least a dozen of these military-themed public schools across the country. They've become more popular in the last decade. But there's also been criticism in some cities about spending local tax dollars on what many see as a military recruitment tool.

On this day several kids at Marie G. Davis are getting promoted. Many of them plan to join the armed forces. They also plan to attend college. The school is trying to make sure they'll have the encouragement and the life skills to do what they want.

One girl smiles shyly as the school's JROTC colonel slides a new rank onto her uniform. Students advance based on behavior, academic achievement, and extracurricular activities. "You've changed from that same person I met two years ago," he tells her. "You've turned into a mature young lady. You're on your way. Just keep climbing. I'm proud of you."