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."
Of the academy, he said: "It's not that bad. You should encourage anybody who's reading [this article] to want to go. I changed a lot."
His mother, who pushed him to stick with it, said she still believes in the academy. "They tried to make a change, do something different for these children," Linda Spriggs said. "I was all for it. But they probably still have a ways to go."
The academy's start-up years were by many accounts taxing. In the first couple of years, upperclassmen, who were not part of the military program, often ridiculed the uniformed cadets. The older students called them "string beans, pickles, cucumbers, blades of grass -- anything green," recalled graduate Mario Austin, 17, of Forestville, a cadet lieutenant colonel.
Many of the 354 ninth-graders who started at the academy in 2002 transferred to other schools. Others dropped out, were held back or for some reason failed to graduate. But such attrition is not unusual for urban schools that serve high numbers of disadvantaged students. The academy, near Pennsylvania Avenue and inside the Beltway, serves surrounding low- and moderate-income neighborhoods near Southeast Washington. It also takes applications from students countywide.
Leadership flux has also had an impact. Last summer, founding principal Eric Lyles took a job elsewhere in the school system and was replaced by Smallwood. Lyles did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment.
The county schools chief who launched the academy, Iris T. Metts, left office in 2003. She was succeeded by a schools chief who lasted just two years -- Andre J. Hornsby -- and then an interim chief. Each time a new chief has taken over, the academy has been forced to explain itself and its mission all over again. In interviews, school system officials said they believe the academy at times has been adrift.
New schools chief John E. Deasy is weighing its future. He said test scores worry him. Just one in 10 ninth-graders passed last year's state algebra/data analysis test -- no improvement from 2002 scores. About 20 percent of sophomores passed last year's state biology test -- also virtually the same as the 2002 scores. Just seven students took AP exams last spring, including four juniors in the military program. None passed.
In a small advance, the number of academy students taking the SAT has grown in recent years. Composite SAT scores for yesterday's graduating class were not available. In a gauge of campus discipline, state data show the academy had 253 suspensions in the 2004-05 school year. That was a lower suspension rate than some nearby high schools. About a third of Forestville students that year missed more than 20 days of school -- not exemplary but close to the county average.
There were no figures available on how many academy graduates were headed to four-year colleges. A few told The Post they were signing up for military service. But that did not appear to be a widespread choice. Students incur no military service obligation by attending the academy. Officials emphasized that they do not want the academy to be perceived as a military recruiting arm.
Asked whether he would leave the military academy intact, Deasy replied: "We're committed to continuing programs that help students achieve. We'll look and see if this is one of those programs."
Deasy said he was keen to hear from students who vouch for the academy. "Therein lies great value," he said. "Pride and belief in an ability to achieve."
The schools chief took part in yesterday's exercises at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro as an Army brass band played. The academy's commandant gave an upbeat speech that acknowledged need for improvement.
"Though we're not where we want to be yet," retired Maj. Gen. Warren L. Freeman told the graduates, "we've come a long way, and we've been very successful."