School’s military-style reboot aims to push students further

School’s military-style reboot aims to push students further

To boost college-attendance rates, North Valley Military Institute in
Granada Hills combines teaching with physical training and a rank structure.

By Stephen Ceasar

On a soggy Granada Hills field, eight platoons stand at attention, poised to salute the American flag as it rises toward a cloudy morning sky.

The bugler lifts the brass instrument to his mouth and waits. A short delay betrays the illusion, but then a recording of “Reveille” blares out from stereo speakers as the flag moves up the pole.

The call finishes, and the 17-year-old lowers his bugle.

“I’m taking lessons,” Jesiah Samora says. “I’ll be able to actually play it soon.”

Then the bleary-eyed middle and high school classmates march, mostly in step, toward their homerooms.

They are the first students at North Valley Military Institute, a Los Angeles Unified School District charter school that this year transformed from a traditional campus to one steeped in military-style values and structure.

The change came about because enrollment at the school known as North Valley Charter Academy began plummeting, partly due to the construction of new high schools nearby. Principal Diane French and other administrators sought a way to boost the student body’s numbers that also would fit with the school’s mission — academic excellence, democratic leadership and personal growth.

French visited the Oakland Military Institute, a charter started in 2001 by then-Mayor Jerry Brown. Impressed, she sought to replicate the program that boasts a 95% college attendance rate for its graduates.

In its first year, North Valley Military Institute has enrolled 260 students, up from about 190. Latino students make up about 80% of the attendees, and 82% of the school’s students are low-income. About 25% are special-education students.

The military aspect of the curriculum is overseen by the California Cadet Corps, the youth program of the California National Guard. Students enter the school as pledges and rise in rank as they master skills and develop leadership traits, said California Cadet Corps captain Steve Diab, the school’s commandant.

Students are taught military courtesies — the use of “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing their elders, for instance — operate under a rank structure and wear uniforms. Students lead platoons of their peers, do physical training twice a week and follow a demerit system.

“We’re using the military structure to get kids to go to college,” French said. “It teaches them self-reliance, self-discipline, leadership — all attributes needed for success in college.”

L.A. Unified’s charter-school division initially had some concerns about the program. Among them were that students needed to be able to work off disciplinary demerits and that the school would be open to all students who wished to attend, said Jose Cole-Gutierrez, the division head.

North Valley officials agreed to those conditions.

Each morning, four students — one representing each company: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta — stand watch over the front entrance of the school.

They eye the students, searching for flaws in uniforms, for closely cropped hair on the boys and tightly pinned-back hair on the girls. Colored nail polish is prohibited, but makeup is allowed in moderation. Any infraction constitutes a demerit, and each demerit lands a student 15 minutes of detention, which the school calls a “reboot.”

The demerit system is strict but geared around conversation, French said. “It’s a valuable way of tracking the kind of behaviors for which we need to intervene and talk to the student about,” she said.

On a recent warm afternoon, a class of high school students sauntered out to the field for physical training. They did dozens of push-ups and jumping jacks.

“Sit-ups!” Diab ordered as the students hit the deck. After a few minutes, one student jokingly shouted: “I can feel the burn … sir!”

The military influence has led to some confusion in the surrounding neighborhood. Some parents believe the school is a boot camp for troubled teens or is run by the military.

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