It’s about 7:45 a.m. on the first day back from holiday break at the Stanislaus Military Academy. It’s about 30 degrees outside and the young men and women of SMA are hurting — they’ve been running, pounding out pushups and standing in formation.
Talk to any of the students, known as cadets, however, and you may be surprised to learn that they like the hurt — it’s the kind of hurt they’ve needed and have truthfully wanted — it’s called discipline.
But nothing comes easy at the Stanislaus Military Academy, except of course for the discipline and the pushups.
The military academy, located at John B. Allard High School in Turlock, primarily enrolls at-risk youth in grades 6-12 who have been expelled from traditional schools, as well as students from community or continuation schools.
To enroll students must be in the Stanislaus County Office of Education’s alternative education program. SMA students, called cadets, choose to be there over other programs.
“Our student population has changed since we began. We used to get the expelled kids but now we are seeing more parents who come in and say ‘I have a good kid but — fill in the blank,” said SMA Counselor Doug Ash, who has worked at the John B. Allard campus for more than 15 years.
According to Ash, the school is experiencing “unprecedented success in changing lives.” The mission at SMA is not to prepare students for military service but for life itself by building character and creating better young men and women. In fact Ash said that since SMA opened in 2009, only 11 students have gone on to military service, but countless have graduated and moved on to Modesto Junior College.
“A significant number of cadets are returning to comprehensive high schools now too. Expulsions are usually for one year so they come here, gain discipline and return when their expulsion is over,” Ash said.
The word about SMA is getting out to at-risk youth and their families. When SMA opened in 2009 only 17 9-12 grade cadets were enrolled. Now, with the addition of the Tactical Character Academy for junior high students and a special education component, there are more than 250 cadets in grades 6-12- with an expansive waitlist.
“My goal here is to see the kids go on and become productive members of society,” said Principal Jeremy Nichols. “I have a passion for helping these kids, for impacting generations. A lot of these kids will be the first ones in their families to graduate high school and go to college.”
Cadet seniors Nancy Aramburo and Margarita Zambrano are on the path to break the cycle. Zambrano chose to come to SMA after being expelled from her former traditional high school.
“It just got to the point where I didn’t want to be there anymore. If they suspended me I was happy because I didn’t want to be there anyway. I was making bad choices and decisions and instead of thinking about the future, I was only thinking about today,” she said. “I like the way the teachers and staff discipline here. They just use physical learning and it’s over.”
Zambrano plans on attending MJC and she said her entire life has improved since coming to SMA.
Aramburo chose to come to SMA after becoming dissatisfied with her traditional school. She began ditching, which led to falling grades and poor decisions.
“The campus had so many students and I felt like I didn’t know anyone, I felt like the teachers didn’t care about me. Here it is like a family, we all know each other and the staff really cares about us,” she said.
Aramburo will be the first of her family to graduate high school. She plans on attending Cypress College in Orange County to become a flight attendant. Aramburo said she loves to travel, fly and explore the world.
“A lot of kids come to us and they don’t know how to act with other people, adults or authority. Here they acquire things vital to success like pride, self-respect and learn social conventions and acknowledgment of authority and rules,” said Paul Fogarty, an SMA teacher and former Army National Guard officer.
Cadets at SMA are introduced to military life during their first few weeks of attendance during “induction platoon.” Following induction they go through a rite of passage, known as “Hell Week” and then they attend a four-day Basic Cadet Training in the Bay Area.
“When the kids come back from that you can see that they have more confidence and they feel better about themselves and we’ve reached them,” said Fogarty.
“Before I was shy and I didn’t have any confidence to talk with other people. Now I have more respect for others and I’ve learned how to get along with others,” said freshman Robert Trrazas.
Sophomore Ariana Diaz said she has developed a better relationship at home — and she is in the best shape of her life. Cadets are constantly doing a set of 20 or more pushups for minor violations such as improperly addressing a teacher or drill instructor or dress violations. More major mishaps will lead to 100-yard bear crawls, wall squats and more “creative discipline measures.” Both Diaz and Trrazas hope to enter military service after high school.
Another valuable aspect of SMA is choice — the choice of students to attend. At any moment a student is free to leave the campus and attend a continuation or independent study school. The same can be said for SMA administration — they can dismiss students for poor grades and or discipline issues.
“Once they are here and have gone through BCT you will immediately see their grades and attendance improve,” said Fogarty. “They really don’t have a choice if they want to be here, and really that is who we want here.”
Principal Nichols said cadets are kept on a short leash for attendance.
“I will go out two or three times a semester to knock on doors when a cadet doesn’t show up and our campus supervisors are out there pretty regularly,” he said.
Once grades go up because cadets are in classrooms, the rest of their lives often follow suit.
This week SMA instituted a new educational plan. Previously cadets were broken into segmented platoons and attended one self-contained classroom a day with their teacher and a drill instructor. Now cadets will attend seven different periods a day, like a traditional school.
On the first day of the new schedule cadets often struggled, mainly because it was the first day after holiday break. Before cadets enter the classroom teachers and drill instructors line the cadets up in formation and provide them the opportunity to enter the classroom in an organized manner. Most cadets failed, two or three times. Their discipline was 20 pushups until they could cohesively enter the classroom. Nothing comes easy at the SMA.
To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.