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First State Military Academy strives for excellence amid charter boom

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Retired Col. Robert Wallace (left) and Commandant Patrick Gallucci of First State Military Academy. Photo by Eric Crossan

Special to Delaware Business Times

At First State Military Academy, students wear the MARPAT, short for “Marine pattern,” the same pixelated camo uniform worn by Marines. But they’re not allowed to wear it outside of school, and they could face discipline even for stopping at a gas station before class in a MARPAT.

Like every school uniform, it’s meant in part to remove a distraction, but here it’s used to stand out as much as to blend in. Just as the school borrows the trappings of the Marine Corps – the terminology, the clothes, the haircuts – it hews closely to their core values.

First State, founded in 2015 as Delaware’s second military-themed high school, is growing quickly after a rocky start. As one of only two high schools in the nation supported by the Marines, it views itself as a distinctive place both in the values it attempts to teach and the project-based learning that dominates the curriculum.

Even as it faced the uphill battle seen by every new charter school, First State also dealt with the misconceptions of potential members. It’s not a boarding school, a feeder system for the military nor a reform school for troubled children, though many parents initially came looking for a place to discipline their wayward children.

Enrollment started off at 202 children. Only 133 returned the following year. The student count has since climbed to 436, as the school attracted more students who were a better fit.

Unlike district schools, charter schools can be more discerning about the children who enroll. That’s part of First State’s appeal; it demands a certain level of commitment from students, rather than changing to accommodate them.

Though First State was in some ways inspired by Delaware Military Academy – another military charter school located in Wilmington – the Marines bring a culture that prides itself on unbending discipline. For example, retired Col. Bob Wallace, the school’s senior marine instructor, said that Delaware Military Academy has a “pajama day,” where students can trade their uniform for loose-fitting sleeping clothes.

“We would never do that here,” Wallace said. (Delaware Military Academy did not return inquiries regarding this story).

They don’t let their hair down – literally. Male cadets must have their hair cut once every two weeks and females with longer hair must wear it in a bun.

Its founder, Scott Kidner, said cadets need to come with the desire to succeed, not a spirit of rebellion.
“If you have a problem with getting your hair cut or have blue hair, we’re not right for you.”

A mission in search of a school

The idea for First State was borne out of Kidner’s dissatisfaction with the other options available to his three boys. Too often, these classrooms were disorderly places that stymied both learning and character, the Dover man said.

Prompted by a suggestion from Delaware Military Academy founder Charles Baldwin, he called around to his friends about starting a similar school in Kent County.

“This is one of those typical situations where thank goodness I didn’t know what I was doing,” Kidner said. Starting a charter school, he would come to learn, takes mettle and perseverance. He and his board needed land, leadership and money to pay for them both.

As a charter school in Delaware, First State gets operational funding from the state for each student, just like regular public schools. But, unlike those schools, it doesn’t get money for equipment, buildings, parking lots or other big-ticket items.

The board settled on a 35-acre, four-building complex on the northwest side of Clayton that opened in 1889 as an orphanage for African-American boys.

The cost of the land and buildings was less than $1 million, but the repair bill was several times higher. To pay for it all, the board secured a $6.9 million loan from the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development.

The other big hurdle was to find a school leader. The board chose Patrick Gallucci, who spent 17 years as a health and physical education teacher, most recently at Polytech High School in Woodside, and four years as an administrator. He served in the Marine Corps for four years before becoming a teacher.

Wallace, who retired in 2012 after a 30-year career in the Marines, first joined civilian education as coordinator of a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or JROTC, program at a Virginia high school. He was attracted to First State by the opportunity to shape the culture of an entire school.

At First State Military Academy in Clayton, cadets adhere to the Marine tradition of self-discipline. They are not permitted to appear in the school uniform off school grounds.

Mission first

In First State’s five-year list of priorities, student achievement appears at the bottom. Mission
and purpose are at the top.

Around the flagpole one sunny October afternoon, the buses waited nearby as the students assembled
in formation on the lawn. It was a routine dismissal.

“Sophomores,” belted out MSgt. Donald Huston, “bring your PT gear tomorrow,” referring to physical training. “You’re gonna need it.”

Anyone who spends time around teenagers might have noticed that none of the students took out their phones.

Many public schools have a fraught relationship with cell phones, vacillating between seeing them as a distraction and a learning tool. At First State, there are none of the conditional rules that guide cell phone use elsewhere. If the staff see a phone, they take it; if they see it again, a parent has to pick it up.

Though discipline is often seen as a punishment handed from above, at First State they see it as a matter of cultivating internal self-control. Discipline is something one does for oneself.

“The kids will often say they thought we were just kidding” about enforcing their rules, Wallace said. It starts with the basics, like walking through the hallway or riding the bus.

Later, the school puts its cadets in positions of responsibility and authority to teach them leadership and character. Cadets themselves lead the school’s five-day orientation for new students each June.

David Hecker, 15, says his time at First State has made him more goal- and value-oriented. He volunteers to help the school set up at open houses or festivals, and recently gained the rank of sergeant in the JROTC.

“Passing the sergeant’s test showed me how much I think I’m ready to be a leader at my school,” he said. Hearing stories from his Marine instructors has led him to want to join the Marine Corps after he graduates.

Though every student at First State is a member of the JROTC, the school is not meant to be a recruiting tool for the Marines. Students must make no commitment to the military, and recruiters are only allowed on campus in limited circumstances.

Different school,different learning

Students and parents at First State must adapt to “project-based learning,” a learning model based on the belief that children learn best – both the content, like math or history, and related skills like critical thinking – when they discover information for themselves.

The school is a member of New Tech Network, a nonprofit that works with more than 200 schools to implement project-based learning.

The school’s emphasis on developing discipline pairs well with this style, as students need perseverance to seek out information rather than wait as it’s delivered to them, Gallucci said.

Still, some children and families rebel against the new model, at least at first. “They’re so used to being given information,” Gallucci said.

The approach seemed a bit on the laid-back side at first to parent Leslie Stapleford, whose son, Jase,
is a junior, but now she’s a believer.

“I think it gives the students the autonomy to find things out for themselves, so they’re not being spoon-fed,” she said. “It’s a stepping stone to life after high school, to working in a team and being autonomous.”
Stapleford said her son has not been pressured to join the military. Instead he’s interested in studying oceanic engineering at the United States Naval Academy.

Wanted: Parking lot

First State expects to hit its enrollment cap of 500 within the next few years. Instead of attracting students, their ongoing challenges are financial. They need to maintain their old buildings and would like to add athletic fields and parking.

“If anybody’s got 1,000 yards of blacktop they want to unload, let me know,” Kidner said. “We’ve got all the land we need, just not enough money to pay for a parking lot.”

They’re also seeking donors to keep supporting the school.

They’ve received a fair amount of support so far, including $1 million or so from the Marines toward uniforms and other expenses and hundreds of thousands from foundations, including the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, Longwood Foundation and Welfare Foundation.

Though it can’t grow much more, the student body will look different. The school’s racial diversity is similar to the state as a whole, though it’s 69 percent male. Gallucci expects the gender mix to balance in the coming years. The freshman class has a 50-50 mix, and JROTC programs average about 60 percent female, Wallace said.

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