A few years ago, teenager Jonathan Gentry was taking drugs, drinking alcohol, breaking the law, cussing at police officers and hitting his parents. He was a follower.
"I didn't see anything but today. I didn't think about tomorrow," he said.
Today, Gentry is a leader. He enrolled in the Stanislaus Military Academy, and the 18-year-old found the structure and discipline he needed. He's turned his life around, and is one of the academy's top cadets, guiding drills and leading by example.
"I like the character development program. It's giving me character traits that I lacked that were making me make bad decisions," he said.
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In its first year, the military academy, known as SMA, enrolls at-risk students who were expelled from traditional high schools and shuffled to alternative education programs. It's on the campus of Turlock's John B. Allard Community School, which most of the students attended before enrolling in the academy.
Students said the military discipline combined with academics has helped them relate what they're learning to real-world situations. They say the academy prepares them for life in college, the military or the workplace.
A year ago, Gentry was expelled from Pitman High School for fighting on a school bus. He was going through a rebellious phase -- his dad was serving time in prison after years of committing robberies and using methamphetamine. Now, he has a
6-month-old son and wants to turn things around.
"I'm no angel, but I didn't want him to live the life I went through," said the teen's father, Jonathan Gentry. "SMA is breaking the cycle. SMA has given him the tools for life."
SMA is more than an educational opportunity. It's a lifestyle makeover. Each day, in each class, the academy's core values -- commitment, discipline, respect, courage and honor -- are preached and applied.
Most students are at SMA because they were kicked out of their traditional high schools. Some didn't think school was important, others were distracted by dysfunctional families. Many sought the structure and discipline, and most are interested in joining the military after high school.
They also want a sense of belonging or a place to apply what they're learning in class, much like a sports team, club or band.
By organizing students into three platoons, instructors can focus on teamwork and peer accountability. If one student doesn't perform a duty or school assignment, the whole company must complete physical drills on the grass and blacktop that separate SMA from Allard.
A mother amazed
Mom Angel Parmley is surprised by her daughter's transformation.
"Her mood swings were bad. When I'd pick her up from school, I never knew if she'd be on something (drugs). And we'd get into fights, physical fighting. Now, I pick her up from school, she's always in a good mood," Parmley said about daughter Kristene, 17.
Kristene's struggles were the result of conflicts with her estranged dad, Parmley said. She rebelled and started hanging out with destructive friends.
She's severed contact with all of them.
"I question where she would be if she didn't come here. Would she be strung out on the street?" Parmley said. "I don't know of a school that would have helped her like this school did."
The academy's strict structure isn't for everyone.
Principal Alberto Velarde said about 3 percent to 5 percent of students drop out or go back to Allard.
The academy's school day -- 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. -- is two hours longer than Allard's, yet daily attendance is higher (94 percent compared with 74 percent), Velarde said.
"And it's changed the culture of the whole school. There is less graffiti and litter," he said.
Velarde said the number of incident reports and suspensions is down this year, but staff couldn't gather that data this week.
Officials cautioned that the academy is not a mini boot camp to which parents can send their children for attitude adjustments. It's for students with real academic and behavior struggles, Stanislaus County Superintendent Tom Changnon said.
Although the academy's teachers aim to instill positive character traits, education is the No. 1 priority. A lot of time is spent bringing students up to grade level. Many are reading at the third- or fifth-grade level.
"Our academics are presented in a more formal way. It's hard for some kids to learn in a formal environment, and at the same time it's hard to learn without rigor," said Capt. Raymond Gibson, commander of the academy, who spent 10 years in the Army.
The academy is also not a place to recruit teenagers for the military. Most students enroll in the academy because they had an interest in the military. But Gibson says he discourages them from enlisting, telling them to try college or a job first.
Cadet Darrell Burnett and his mom are thankful he has those options.
Burnett, 18, was riddled with learning disabilities that made it hard for him to focus or sit still. Mom Crissy said that, year after year, teachers saw in his file that he was a troublemaker and never gave him the patience or the chance he needed.
Burnett has been at Allard since sixth grade but hit a wall and stayed out of school his sophomore year. He'll graduate this year and wants to become a mechanic, either through serving in the military or enrolling at a career college.
Keeping distractions at bay
The discipline and green camouflage fatigues have kept distractions at bay for students, Burnett's mom said.
"When they're wearing the uniforms, they don't know who claims blue or red, who likes rock or pop music," she said. "All you see is facial features and someone's size."
The academy's budget isn't a drain on the county Office of Education's budget, Changnon said, because funding is based on student attendance. And many students were attending schools run by the Office of Education.
Though the need is there, Changnon said he's worried about the academy growing too quickly. Sometimes, the best intervention programs are small and offer individual attention.
The academy is thriving, cadets and instructors say, because it's saving students who most likely wouldn't have graduated high school.
"The way I want to come out is different from what I wanted before I came here. I didn't care about nobody and nothing. I just did whatever I wanted," wrote Sal Garza in an essay about the academy.
"At SMA, I have to work as a team together," he wrote. "I hope I get it right, because I'll probably need it in the future."
For more information about the Stanislaus Military Academy, call John B. Allard Community School at 238-6600 or Fred Bigler at 652-3057.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339.