If you've ever been to a Rochester school board meeting when board members are talking about closing a school, you know how volatile those meetings can get. The fury and blame fly in every direction, especially at board members.
Rarely, however, do parents or community leaders strongly object to a proposal to open a new school. But a recommendation to consider opening a military-style academy in the Rochester school district is an unusual exception, attracting strong supporters and vocal critics. Even if advocates find the funding to open an academy, there are numerous public concerns to address.
The idea for a military academy stems from a wave of challenges facing the district. Many city schools struggle with low performance, many students are disengaged, attendance is still an issue, and a steady stream of parents is turning to charter and suburban schools.
Parents will continue to leave the district if they aren't given more choices, says school board president Van White. White is a proponent of a military-style high school to counter the exodus, and earlier this year assembled a committee to study the feasibility of opening one. The committee's 86-page report shows significant support for the school, but critics question the report's validity.
The report, which includes input from parents, students, and community and business leaders, recommends a standalone school that would be affiliated with the US Army in conjunction with the national Defense Cadet Corps. The school would start with about 75 ninth graders and eventually grow to about 450 students in grades 7-12.
The school would accept both city and suburban students on a voluntary basis. And the committee insists that the academy would not be a feeder school for recruitment into military service. The school would emphasize a college prep-STEM curriculum, says Lt. Col. Ulises Miranda III, a co-chair of the committee and JROTC instructor.
Supporters of military schools often view them as a viable option for students who are struggling academically and need an education environment with more structure and discipline. Focus and discipline are necessary skills for students who want to go to college or are considering a career in military service, they say. And there are indicators that show that students do better academically in military schools, supporters say.
But critics view military schools with skepticism, if not disdain. They question why educators would introduce young and impressionable students to what they call a military recruitment tool. And they say that military schools are often touted as alternatives in low-income communities of color and not in affluent suburban districts. And they question why young people should be taught to yield to authority rather than question it.
Doug Noble, a longtime anti-war activist, is opposed to opening a military school in the Rochester City School District. He cautions parents, students, and school board members against being swayed by military ideology and images of young people in "crisp uniforms." He says that the report by White's committee is based on general likability questions and opinion, and lacks evidence that the school would improve student outcomes.
And he questions why the board would consider a military school when it has committed to improving school climate and shifting away from harsh disciplinary tactics.
The report cites high graduation rates in Chicago's military-style schools as evidence of their value. Most of those schools mirror the demographics of Rochester's schools. And some reviews of the schools show that they have an average ACT score of about 20, which is around the national average.
Based on Chicago Public Schools data, on average the schools' cadets academically outperform their CPS counterparts, according to an article in Medill Reports, published in 2015 by Northwestern University's School of Journalism.
But much has been written about JROTC programs and military schools that is controversial. In a paper published in Academia.edu, "Making Soldiers in the Public Schools: an Analysis of the ARMY JROTC Curriculum," author Catherine Lutz says that proponents tend to portray JROTC as a cure-all for everything "from the children who come to school with guns to the fatherless child's need for a paternal figure."
And during a 2007 PBS NewsHour debate about Chicago's military academies, guest Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, raised a public policy question.
"Why are they good schools for low-income African-American and Latino students and not good schools for affluent white kids?" she said.
A similar concern was raised by Cynthia Elliott, vice president of the Rochester school board, at a recent meeting with some of the military school committee members.
Concerned about the possibility of funneling black students into the military, Elliott said, "I do know historically for African Americans it was one of the only career opportunities that was available at one time. They fight for freedom for everybody else, but when they came back to their own country, they were not free to have the various jobs and housing and everything else."
Elliott has also voiced strong resistance to the idea that students of color who misbehave need to be "fixed" through one method or another.
Committee member Lt. Col. Andrae Evans said at the meeting that he understands Elliott's concerns. Discipline is not about punishment, he said, but about developing character traits that are known to lead to success. And with respect to the Civil Rights movement, he said that depriving students of knowledge that will help them succeed in life would deny them the opportunities that have come from the movement's struggles.
The committee members pointed out that the number of Rochester city school students who participate in the JROTC and then go on to join the military is low. And many RCSD students who do try to enlist are rejected because they don't meet academic standards, they said.
Some parents and students who have personal experience with the JROTC and military schools have spoken passionately to board members about them, often crediting the schools with helping their children when all else failed. At the same board meeting, one father nearly wept while reading from his son's letter which said that he regained his footing in life after being in a more structured educational environment.
Davian Walters, 18, and Shamard Houser, 15, are participants in the local JROTC program and support the idea of a military-style school in the Rochester school district.
"Before I went into the program, I wasn't a leader," Walters says. "I was more timid. I believe this has truly molded me into a better person."
"I saw doors begin to open up for me," Houser says.
The military-school plan needs the full school board's approval to move ahead and funding must be found.