Donal Brown
New America Media
August 20, 2008

Wayne Madsen
Students will be called cadets, wear uniforms and be subject to a disciplinary system similar to that of fire and police academies and the U.S. military.  

A new career charter high school in Wilmington, Del., set to open in the fall of 2010, has been criticized for its focus on preparing students in homeland security careers. The Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, is looked upon by some as an oppressive arm of the government.

According to news reports, the charter school will forego college prep curriculum for such courses as weapons training. But Attorney Thomas Little, the project manager for the school, the Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security (DAPSS), said the school is grounded in a college preparatory curriculum and will offer no weapons training.

With an 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. school day, DAPSS will offer training in a number of areas including “first responder” careers such as fire, police, paramedic, emergency room, nursing and water rescue. It will also prepare students for careers in airport and port security, border guard, prison guard, heavy equipment operation and the U.S. military.

Little said that at the start of the junior year, students would be able to volunteer for two years of drug testing. If cleared, they will be able to go directly into fire and police academies right after graduation.

Still, Little said, the intent of the school is to extend the inner city students’ academic horizons. “We know these kids are the toughest. We want to make them tough and smart,” he said.

Whenever possible, Little said the college prep curriculum will reflect the career mission of the school. “In history, one of the courses could be on the culture of honor, what protecting the tribe was about from the Greeks to the Samurai warrior,” he said. The senior year could include a course on the law of first response, including workers compensation, federal work safety standards and union grievance.

During the hour of physical education, students will also get training in areas useful for entering security and safety careers. In the fall, the school will offer rowing and swimming, and students will speak Spanish during the period. In the winter, the students will walk and run cross-country and speak Arabic. In the spring it will be track and field, and Chinese will be the language of the hour.

The school will also offer martial arts training, and field separate female and male judo teams, and possibly teams in debating and mock trial.

School organizers got a boost in June with the release of a long-term study of nine career academies that showed that eight years after graduation, students from career schools earned $2,088 more annually than students from other schools. Male at-risk students earned 17 percent more than other students.

The study by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. showed that 12th grade career academy students were more likely to remain in school, attend more regularly and earn more credits toward graduation. The career schools included academics, career studies, mentoring and work experience. Participants in the study were mainly black and Hispanic. When the study began in 1993, there were only about 500 career academies nationwide. Today there are more than 2,500.

The career academy planned for Wilmington will have a military orientation. Students will be called cadets, wear uniforms and be subject to a disciplinary system similar to that of fire and police academies and the U.S. military.

Headmaster Bruce Holaday of a military charter school in Oakland, Calif., said that military schools suffer from the stereotypes of drill sergeants and shaved heads. But, he said, “It is in how one understands the word, discipline. It is most associated with punishment and means painful, stern and harsh, laced with punishment. That is not what the word means in our school.”

In Holaday’s 6-12 grade Oakland Military Institute, College Prep Academy, the military discipline system is a comprehensive character education program. The school teaches discipline as habits of character – showing up on time, looking the part of a serious student, focus, organization, courtesy and leadership, taking responsibility for others.

There is a merit/demerit system so students can earn merits for positive acts from turning in homework to picking up trash or being kind to fellow students. They can turn in their earned merits for food and such merchandise as i-Pods at the school store.

When a student messes up, the first question is, “What were you thinking?”

The school tries to involve the students and parents in working out strategies for avoiding repeat offenses. Holaday said that for the 500-strong student body, there were only an average of four expulsions a year for serious offenses involving knives and drugs. This is required by the school district.

Little says that DAPSS will use a different approach, “Some call it tough love, no yelling, no posturing, just common sense and the benefit of the doubt…. If they do not respond or do not like it, they have the choice to go somewhere else and thrive. We do not need every child, only the ones who want a job in the first responder industry.”

Little thinks that the students will learn discipline as they acquire the skills necessary to join the industry. “The industry itself sets the pace. We just teach the career survival skills necessary to be accepted for a job,” he says.

In DAPSS physical classes, students will learn to follow directions; master leadership skills as in creating and enforcing directions; and practice partnership in solving problems and meeting crises in a group. The first three years prepare students for the senior year and an individual project to achieve a community goal.

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