DENAIR, Calif. – “Front leaning rest position ... MOVE!”
shouts a drill instructor. Eighty young men and women drop
down on their hands and feet and begin doing pushups on a
concrete slab as a drill instructor in a large brimmed hat
walks through the rows of cadets. Sweat beads form quickly
on their foreheads in the August afternoon sun.
the smoke session ends, the cadets snap into formation and
one of their own stands in front.
“See what happens
when we waste time?!” he yells out at his peers. From patrol
cap to boots, these young souls look like new recruits in
But as the cadets disperse, they
don't adjust their helmets and body armor or pick up their
rifles. They quietly and quickly file into classrooms with
white walls and blue trim. It's 1300 hours at the Stanislaus
Military Academy. Lunchtime is over.
are expelled from traditional school, they begin attending a
continuation school. For those expelled from continuation
school, a community school is the last stop before juvenile
hall or jail depending on age. John B. Allard Community
School in Denair, California, serves grades four through 12
in the Stanislaus County Office of Education School
“Fifteen years ago, when I first came here,
this school was a gang haven,” explained Doug Ash, school
During the 2008-09 school year, the
Stanislaus Military Academy, a military style program, was
created. Originally a senior high program with 20 students,
the program has grown to nearly 120. This year a junior
academy was created for grades six through eight.
Like any school, the program features academic studies,
physical conditioning, character training and
extra-curricular activities. Unique to John B. Allard
Community School is the emphasis on strict military
discipline. The goal of the SMA's rigorous requirements is
to produce a high school graduate who is proud of his
“Parents see this as the one way to
save their kids,” Ash said. “One parent told me last year,
‘This is the first thing he's ever finished in his life.'”
With that kind of pressure on their shoulders, the
teachers at SMA, all credentialed through California, rely
on help from drill instructors and mentors with some
But to make it all real, Ash
said, an active duty military presence is key.
Force Master Sgt. Ron Biggs with the California National
Guard Counterdrug Task Force meets with students once a
week. He's considering being on campus twice a week this
year. He feels his involvement is that important.
Air Force Master Sgt. Ron Biggs, a Drug Demand Reduction team member with the California National Guard Counterdrug Task Force, talks to Stanislaus Military Academy cadets about leadership after conducting a trust-building exercise with the teens
on September 11, 2014. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Kara M. Siepmann)
“All our alternative education students are at-risk youth
who are in dire need of structure, discipline, and normalcy
in their lives,” Biggs said. “I offer examples of leadership
and mentorship to the students.”
Alberto Velarde, the
school principal said, “Biggs has become a mentor to
students and has taken the lead in teaching leadership.”
Biggs follows the National Center for Prevention and
Research Solutions' Stay on Track curriculum. NCPRS is a
501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 1989. According
to the NCPRS website, in 2006, rigorous scientific research
on the Stay on Track program indicated that students who
completed the program demonstrated improvement in setting
goals, communicating, making decisions and resisting drug
use and negative peer pressure.
Like many service
members on the Counterdrug Task Force Prevention Team, Biggs
has ties to Stanislaus County. His oldest of two children is
a freshman at California State University, Stanislaus.
“My engagement with the students opens doors for them,”
Biggs said. “When these students come back and tell me
they've done everything I've recommended and they get into
college or get a good job, it means so much to me. When they
realize everything we've been telling them is true, the
light bulb goes on in their minds that they can accomplish
their goals—that's more than any thank you I could receive.”
Ash said, “This is the best program I've ever been in.
This is the best I've seen in education.”
to James Arnold, an instructor at the school, attendance
rates are at 96 percent compared to traditional alternative
education schools that lag around 69 percent. Last year, 100
percent of eligible seniors graduated.
statistics bode well for SMA, the school also achieves
results not easily captured by testing metrics. Students
gain self-esteem and worth.
“When I went to regular
high school, I didn't go. When I went, I didn't pay
attention,” Cadet Anna Dos Reis admitted.
Reis is one
of the original 20 students continuing from last year. She
said she is on track to graduate this year.
her classmates was equally candid about his past.
“Before, I was disrespectful and I didn't care about lots of
things,” Cadet Eriberto Barajas said.
He said he was
fired from his first job for leaving to spend time with his
friends and smoke marijuana.
Now more than a year
later, he said, “If I was in a job interview I would say I'm
responsible, respectful, always on time, and have leadership
Reis and Barajas are cheerful about
“I hope I carry my discipline with me
and not become sloppy again. I hope good things for myself,”
It's clear last year's students are proud
of surviving in the SMA.
“They aren't against you.
They are here to help you,” Reis said.
still seem wary of the program's authoritarian format.
“I chose to be here,” Cadet Davi Mitchell said proudly.
But her voice wavered.
In contrast to the first two
students, professional looking and focused from their first
year's experiences, Mitchell, a junior, seems nervous as she
quickly sways back and forth on her feet.
older students described themselves with positive, focused
adjectives, Mitchell and fellow junior, Cadet Robert
Fletcher seem daunted by the question, “What words describe
you and your personality?”
“I don't know who I am,”
Fletcher quietly said.
But he does know where he
wants to be.
“I'd like to control my anger more – I
fight too much. And I'd like to finish things that I don't
want to do,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher served as 4th
Squad leader during the four day, three night basic training
two weeks earlier.
“I had fun at basic camp,”
Fletcher said. “I loved it. I'm an outdoor person.”
If he stays with the program, Fletcher will improve. “We use
military discipline, Arnold, the instructor, explained. “But
we offset it with compassion to really show the cadets that
we care for their overall growth now and in the future.”
Despite the pushups, the yelling, the rushing around,
the cadets seem motivated and proud. Of the more than 100
students, all but a handful of heads are held high as they
sit in class, walk around campus or participate in military
At the far corner of campus there are
students in regular clothes. They are, by far, the minority
Biggs explained that those students just
started and they will either adapt or leave the program
“They all have a chance to be here with us,” said Capt.
James Arnold, a teacher dressed in camouflaged-patterned
attire. Arnold is a credentialed teacher, a National Guard
Soldier and the Junior Academy commander. If a student fails
to adapt to the SMA's program, he is kicked out.
“Repeatedly demonstrating a bad attitude and not showing any
sign of improvement constitutes failure to adapt,” Arnold
This day, Biggs is out on the grass
teaching 20 students about trust—trust toward their
supervisors, their peers and their subordinates.
students laugh as they stand in small clusters of five. The
lone student in the middle of the circle crosses her arms
across her chest, closes her eyes and lets her body go limp.
The students on the outside push her gently clockwise
around. Twice the student in the center is dropped, but
quickly helped up by peers.
“You won't always like
who you're working with, but you still have to give them
respect,” he reminds the group.
They all nod their
heads, understanding. Biggs captures the attention of every
teen on the field for a 15-minute talk following the
“The transformation of the majority of
students' behavior is unbelievable. They turn themselves
around,” Velarde said.
He attributes the program's
successes to the students' ability to self-regulate.
But the teachers and administrative staff also deserve
“This is my community,” Arnold said. “We (the
teachers) do extra hours, extra everything for these kids.
They have value and are worth something and I remind them of
that every day.”
By U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Kara M. Siepmann
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