(AFP) – Nov 25, 2007
CHICAGO (AFP) — Dozens of teens dressed in uniforms provided by the US Marines stand at attention in the gym of a Chicago public high school as a drill sergeant goes through a list of the day's do's and don'ts.
Bring your books to class. Come for extra help if you need it. And wear your uniform with pride.
"Young men, you think you can get a haircut and say I'm done for two or three weeks. WRONG," Sgt. Major Thomas Smith Jr. intones.
"Young ladies. There's been no problem with your uniforms but there is a problem with your ties. Again, I will go through it again. Wear your ties when you come to my class."
One in 10 public high school students in Chicago wears a military uniform to school and takes classes -- including how to shoot a gun properly -- from retired veterans.
That number is expected to rise as junior military reserve programs expand across the country now that a congressional cap of 3,500 units has been lifted from the nearly century-old scheme.
Proponents of the junior reserve programs say they provide stability and a sense of purpose for troubled youth and help to instill values such as leadership and responsibility.
But opponents say the programs divert critical resources from crumbling public schools and lead to a militarization of US society.
"To call these young people child soldiers might be technically inaccurate, but it does reveal the truth of it," said Oscar Castro, a spokesman for the National Youth and Militarism Program, an advocacy group.
Military recruiters already have the right to give presentations in public schools and to access databases with the contact information of all public school students whose parents do not remove their children from the list.
But they don't have nearly the same impact as daily interaction with teachers and students in uniform, Castro said.
While military officials say the junior reserve programs are not used as recruiting tools, about 30 to 50 percent of cadets eventually enlist, according to congressional testimony by the chiefs of staff of the various armed services in February 2000.
This is particularly troubling given that the programs are concentrated in low-income and minority neighborhoods, said Sheena Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Chicago branch of the American Friends Service Committee which lobbies against the programs.
"If you want to teach discipline and leadership then do it for everyone and don't make them wear (military) uniforms," Gibbs said. "Students (at regular schools) protest that they have to still share books but the military academy has laptops."
At Chicago's Marine Military Math and Science Academy, the first public Marine academy in the nation and the fifth military academy run by the city's school district, it's easy to see how signing up for service would be a logical post-graduation step.
The hallways are lined with prints depicting historic recruiting posters and great moments in military history, like the Battle of the Bulge. Teachers in uniform lead classes in military history, civics, health, and physical fitness.
"The purpose of our school is to send all of our students to post-secondary education," principal Paul Stroh told AFP.
"What's different about this school is we take the military model of discipline, structure and leadership and put it into a high school.
"All of our students wear a uniform and all of our students are expected to be accountable for their actions."
And every morning in formation, Sgt. Major Smith draws a line between the discipline and stability of the Marines and the chaos of the high-crime, low income neighborhood where most of the students live.
"My elementary school was out of control. Everybody just did whatever they wanted," said Mariah Coleman, 14.
"Here there's discipline, but there's freedom as well. Everybody just respects each other and we get respect from the teachers."
Standing with her hands clasped firmly behind her back, Coleman wrinkles her nose at the thought of enlisting and explains that she wants to be a mathematician. She enrolled in the Marine academy because she thought it would help her get into college.
She has four years until graduation.
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