August 18, 2012

Atten-HUT! Broward’s new school at Hollywood Hills High has short hair, military uniforms

One-hundred fifty cadets reported for duty at South Florida’s first public military academy, where the first order of business was learning to say “Yes sir!’’

They’ve only been in uniform three days, and they haven’t learned much more than to stand in line and say “Yes, sir!” But it’s enough for their parents. When the 150 cadets of Hollywood Hills High Military Academy’s inaugural freshman class snapped to attention on command Saturday morning, 400 family members in the audience jumped up to give them a standing ovation.

“I’ve been joking with his dad, but it’s no joke, since he put that uniform on, he’s been standing up straighter,” Fort Lauderdale office manager Jade Pisut said of her son Cody, 14, one of the cadets standing on the auditorium stage. “It’s only three days, but we’re thrilled.”

South Florida’s first public military academy doesn’t officially open its doors until Monday, along with the rest of the Broward County school system. But the cadets came in last week to get fitted for uniforms, learn some military courtesies and customs (including the haircut). And Saturday they cut the ribbon to open their new campus, a nest of buildings at the back of Hollywood Hills High on Stirling Road.

The verdict so far: The cadets like it. Their parents love it.

“Oh, I wanted this for her so badly,” said Miriam Rodriguez, a Pembroke Pines fire-rescue worker who urged her daughter Amanda, 14 — about 40 percent of the new cadets are girls — to apply for the academy. “There’s a lot of discipline here, and they teach leadership skills. That’s what I want for my daughter. I want her to be a leader, not a follower.”

Discipline — and the boots and camouflage fatigues that the cadets wear — is mostly what distinguishes the military academy, a magnet school, from the rest of Hollywood Hills High or, for that matter, other Broward high schools.

Though their Army ROTC classes will include some military skills like map-reading and marksmanship (the cadet color guard was already equipped with the air rifles with which they’ll practice), the rest of the academic load consists of classes like biology, math and literature, the same as at any other high school. Only three of the nine teachers on staff have military backgrounds.

“Hardly any of these kids will end up entering the military,” said Lt. Col. Kim Harrell, a 23-year veteran of U.S. Army intelligence who’s the academy commandant. “Nobody wants to believe us, but we’re not recruiters, not at all. We want to teach them better citizenship, better character development and how to prepare for post-secondary instruction.

“We teach them how to set goals, how to write a resume, how to make good decisions, and we create an environment where they don’t face so many distractions. They don’t have to worry about things like ‘Do I have gang colors on, is somebody going to beat me up?’ ”

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who in a brief speech to the cadets congratulated them on choosing a school “that’s no one’s idea of an easy ride,” said the statistics overwhelmingly support Harrell’s argument. The 9,350 students enrolled in ROTC programs in other Broward schools graduate at a rate of 98 to 99 percent, much higher than the kids who wear civvies to school.

“They don’t enter the military at any higher rate than other students, but they do have a very impressive record in getting into good colleges, some of the finest colleges in the nation,” Runcie said. “ROTC is giving them 21st-century skills.”

Even so, some parents confessed to a certain uneasiness at putting their children on a military track at a time when 85,000 American troops are still fighting — and dying at the rate of one a day — in Afghanistan.

“Does that worry me a little?” Pisut asked. “Yes, it does. But I know that the school’s idea is not to shove them out the door into the service. And I like the core values: citizenship, patriotism, a sense of right and wrong, the value of the Constitution. I like the rigor and discipline, which I didn’t think he was learning in other schools.”

Cody, for his part, said it took a hard sell from his mother to get him to apply to the academy. (Several other cadets said the same thing. Moms are apparently the secret weapon in America’s military arsenal.)

But he’s liked everything he’s seen so far. Make that almost everything. “The uniform, ummm, well, it’s a uniform,” he said, looking down at his fatigues and boots. “If I didn’t have to wear it, I’d probably be in flip-flops, a t-shirt and shorts.”

Take heart, private. Col. Harrell says you’ve already survived the toughest part of entering ROTC.

“The uniforms and the haircut, that’s definitely the part that’s the hardest for them to get used to,” she said. “They’re fine with saying ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am,’ and they like belonging to a unit, a larger structure. But the uniforms and the haircut, that’s a big leap.”

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