Exit a First Class of Cadets

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

One graduate in full dress uniform snapped gleeful salutes to the crowd yesterday as he strode across stage. Others accepting diplomas from Maryland's first public military high school shimmied and basked in cheers. The class valedictorian was headed to the University of Wisconsin on a scholarship. The salutatorian turned down an offer from West Point to accept a scholarship to Cornell University.

Forestville Military Academy's graduation exercises for its inaugural class of 140 cadets evoked memories of the many hopes placed in an unusual experiment begun in 2002 to overhaul a long-troubled Prince George's County high school. The academy's founders aimed to instill a military routine and spirit in children who otherwise might have gone astray.

Four years later, teachers, students, parents and administrators said, some of the academy's hopes have been fulfilled. But only some. The 1,000-student academy, once known as Forestville High School, has posted low scores year after year on major gauges of achievement, such as Advanced Placement examinations and the Maryland High School Assessments.

In an interview, Principal James Smallwood said the academic rating is still "at the bottom. That's a given. We can't do anything but go up." Smallwood, who is finishing his first year at the academy, said: "Give me four years. Once kids buy into your system, you're going to see teaching take place."

The academy certainly has given kids a system. Beginning with ninth-graders in August 2002 and with new classes added each year, students have been required to wear crisp army-green uniforms every day with black belts and black shoes, keep their hair neatly groomed and take Army Junior ROTC classes every year until they graduate, along with the regular Maryland high school curriculum.

Students would benefit from a new school-wide culture of order and discipline, the thinking went, with social distractions and disciplinary troubles kept to a minimum. They would put more energy into academic pursuits and get stronger results. A similar military academy launched not long before in the Chicago public schools had yielded encouraging gains. Prince George's officials, who have an estimated 6,000 students in JROTC programs at 21 schools, envisioned the academy as a logical extension of a leadership and character education program popular countywide.

For Ashley Bembry, it worked. She entered the academy in ninth grade with a talk-back attitude and a tendency to hang with the wrong crowd. "My ninth-grade year, I was so negative," the 17-year-old from Forestville said. "Oh my goodness, I was getting suspended left and right. I had a mouth on me, I really did."

But now she has graduated from the academy as a cadet second lieutenant, an honor roll student, with plans to attend Bowie State University and perhaps become a teacher.

Her mother, Josephine Bembry, said Ashley and her brother Ashford, who is in the class of 2007, benefited from "a taste of discipline, order, structure."

It also worked for Christopher Woody. He cried in the barbershop when he lost his long, styled hair to a buzz cut in 2002. "It was one of the worst days in my life," he told The Washington Post at the time. He spent much of his freshman year resisting the new authority.

But his grades and attitude improved over time. Woody's cumulative grade-point average was 2.8, with marks above 3.0 during his senior year. His SAT score rose to 1410 on the new 2400-point scale, after he got 1207 on his first try. Woody, 18, of Suitland, is headed for Shepherd University in West Virginia and plans to play football and study sports medicine.

"Senior year, that's when I really understood everything," Woody said. "It really hit me, thinking that I want to go to college."

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