A controversial proposal to take problem students out of conventional high school and expose them to strict discipline in a publicly financed military academy won approval yesterday from the Richmond, Va., school board.
The idea, which passed by a 6-to-1 vote, had the backing of Col. James Norwood, a senior Army ROTC instructor in Richmond, some Army brass and Richmond school superintendent James Hunter, who said "students like discipline."
Both Norwood and Hunter have said they believe the proposal offers an ideal solution to disciplinary problems facing the nation's inner-city schools.
But to the Rev. Leontine Kelly, one of three blacks on the seven-member Richmond school board and the lone dissenter in yesterday's vote, the proposal smacks of racism and would impose undue military influence on the city schools.
"These kids will be largely poor and largely black, and so many poor young people have no alternative other than military service anyway," she complained in an interview last week. "To begin them on this route at age 14 just further limits them."
Like Washington, 100 miles to the North, Richmond has a predominantly black school population. Currently about 83 percent of the city's 33,000 public school students are black. (In the District, 95 percent of the 113,000 students are black.)
The military academy approved yesterday will be the first of its kind in the nation.
"This is not a military program designed to teach students to fight and kill but to develop leadership potential and make good citizens out of these kids," says Norwood, a prime mover behind the academy proposal.
"This academy, like all ROTC programs, including the three already in the Richmond high schools, is seen by the Army as a way to get young men and women interested in the military," agrees Pentagon spokesman Maj. Anthony Caggiano.
Academy opponents claimed those programs were enough for one city. "It's frightening to see that kind of control reach so far down," said Kelly, whose two sons served in high school and college ROTC programs. "I don't think civilian public schools should delegate discipline and character-building to the Army."
Supporters of the academy, including top-ranking school officials, say that strict military discipline in the setting of a military academy is simply one of several educational alternatives -- like open classrooms, vocational training and part-time ROTC programs, which are already available in Richmond.
Plans for the new school, to be called the Franklin Military Institute, are well advanced. The academy will open next fall with a staff of 18 and 200 students who will be required to wear Army issued uniforms, receive weapons training and courses in military science from Army offices, along with conventional academic subjects like mathematics and history.
Army officials estimate that at least $70,000 in federal funds will be used to support the academy, with about $90,000 being paid by the Richmond schools. t
School superintendent Hunter points out that enrollment in the academy will be voluntary and that in order to qualify, students must have written parental consent. He says students who have had disciplinary problems will be allowed to attend the school, but rejects charges that the academy will become a "dumping ground" for malcontents.
But kelly worries that the program will not be entirely voluntary. "I don't think the young people will really have much choice," said Kelly, who added that she feared parents might feel pressured to sign consent forms at the urging of school officials. "Usually in this situation the parent is not very informed."
Attorney Tom Wolfe, another opponent, said he thought that the school would become a "dumping ground" for "kids who've gotten in trouble. . . . The school system doesn't know what to do with them, so they're just turning them over to the Army. It's a simple-minded solution.
Others like Phyllis Conklin say that the academy represents creeping militarism.
"There are other ways to reach these kids that do not involve the military," said Conklin, who once directed a tutoring program in Richmond. "This plan is particularly appalling because psychologists say that this age [high school] is the time to teach kids to open their minds. That does not happen in a military school."
Conklin says she is particularly troubled by a city recommendation that the "scope of the academy's curriculum be given flexibility to interrelate military instruction with required academic subjects.
"The official proposal says that these kids would receive an hour a day of military training," she said, "but it sounds like they want to intertwine military training all through the day with academic subjects."
Academy supporters say that the school will not be academically deficient, and add that the military emphasis will prove beneficial to the students.
"This program might help some youngster find his or her niche," said Jona McKee, a retired Army officer and one of several blacks who recently testified in favor of the academy at a public hearing in Richmond. "The bottom line is that students whose families can afford to send them to military academies often do and others who are poor can't."
School board vice chairman Charles Pugh, a strong supporter of the academy and a Navy veteran, agreed, "A lot of young people today do respect a uniform and this would provide the discipline some of these kids don't get at home or in the community," said Pugh, who took ROTC training at Dartmouth. "Basically those opposed to it seem to be the conscientious-objector type who are opposed to anything military."
Col. Norwood said he thought school board approval of the academy was assured until "a bunch of pacifists came into this.
"So what if this would be the first in the country?" Norwood said. "Someone's got to be first. I think the idea would catch on all over the country."
The idea did not catch on in Cincinnati, however, where last year the Army withdrew its support for an academy that had received the backing of the city's board of education. Cincinnati officials said the Army backed off in part because opponents there created a storm of protest over the idea.