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A Challenging Redeployment

Program Prepares Military Veterans for Tough Mission in Nation's Classrooms

John J. Paulson, a retired naval officer, uses a jump-rope to illustrate a physics lesson at Woodbridge High School in Prince William County. He arrived at the classroom through Troops to Teachers, a program that has placed 11,500 teachers nationwide in 15 years.
John J. Paulson, a retired naval officer, uses a jump-rope to illustrate a physics lesson at Woodbridge High School in Prince William County. He arrived at the classroom through Troops to Teachers, a program that has placed 11,500 teachers nationwide in 15 years. (Andrea Bruce - The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

John J. Paulson commanded the submarine USS Philadelphia as it glided through the Atlantic Ocean at the height of the Cold War. He has been shot at by pirates. And he was part of a military team that in the 1990s forecast the devastation a nuclear bomb would cause in various scenarios.

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One recent afternoon, he tugged at a Slinky, swung a yellow jump-rope and dunked a ruler in water -- all to keep 22 teenagers rapt.

The Navy veteran says his latest mission -- high school physics teacher in Prince William County -- is as challenging as the toughest assignments of his 30-year military career. Paulson, 60, transformed from "Captain Paulson" to "Mr. P." through a federal program that offers a stipend to military personnel who launch a career in the classroom.

Troops to Teachers, which has placed about 11,500 teachers nationwide in 15 years, is one way the Obama administration aims to draw more men and minorities into schools and fill demand in the fields of math, science and special education.

About 82 percent of the former soldiers, sailors, Marines and other veterans who sign up are men. (About a quarter of all teachers are men, according to one estimate.) Nearly 40 percent of Troops to Teachers participants are members of racial or ethnic minorities. The program has put more than 2,000 black men into classrooms.

The recruits are producing results. A recent study found that Florida students taught by Troops to Teachers participants made greater gains in reading than peers taught by teachers with similar classroom experience. In math, students in Troops to Teachers classrooms outperformed those in other classes -- even when the other teacher had more years under his belt.

"Honestly, at first, we thought a military officer dealing with today's fifth-graders and seventh-graders was not going to be very effective," said William A. Owings, an Old Dominion University education professor and one of the study's authors. "We found out that is totally untrue. We have come to believe that you're looking at life experience . . . that has a lot of crossover into good classroom skills."

When Rob LaPin, 30, left the Army to teach government at the troubled Walbrook High School in Baltimore last year, he and a fellow teacher spent lunchtime roaming the streets to find truants. LaPin was the robotics coach, student government sponsor and, much to the amusement of his friends, cheerleading coach and fashion coach.

"It engrossed me completely," said LaPin, who is working in Iraq as a government contractor but plans to return to teaching. "As a soldier in the classroom, my duty wasn't only to ensure my kids had good grades, but also to prepare them for life."

Gerrald Ash-Banks, 16, said he and his classmates in the robotics club stayed after school with LaPin almost every day. They also met on weekends. And when Ash-Banks and his mother were having trouble, LaPin sat him down for a talk. "He was like everybody in robotics' father," Ash-Banks said.

Troops to Teachers, launched in 1994 as the military was downsizing, offers up to $5,000 for courses needed to become a teacher, as well as a bonus of up to $5,000. In return, candidates agree to teach at least three years in a school district where many students live in poverty. The program receives $14.4 million a year from the Department of Education but is operated by the Department of Defense.

Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), one of the program's creators, sees it as one option for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He is leading an effort on Capitol Hill to expand the program to bring Troops to Teachers into more schools in middle-class communities.

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