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Military charter schools promise disciplined education
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Sgt. Maj. Donald Vance conducts a student orientation session at the Gen. John Vessey Leadership Academy. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Two new Minnesota charter schools open Tuesday in St. Paul with a distinct military approach to education. The Col. Charles Young Military Academy and the Gen. John Vessey Leadership Academy are separate operations, but both promise their students strict discipline and rigorous learning environments.

St. Paul, Minn. — Student orientation at the General John Vessey Leadership Academy is not a casual meet and greet session. Sgt. Maj. Donald Vance explains in no uncertain terms how students will address him and other instructors when the school year begins.

"That's the first thing we learn here is respect," Vance said.

The rules and regulations students must follow fill a loose leaf notebook. Vance says his new cadets, who used to attend traditional public schools, have a lot of adjustments to make.

"The way the wear their hair, clean shaven, earrings," Vance said. "Whether it be the ladies wearing hoops, they can't wear hoops in an army uniform. They can only wear a stick pin. Males can't wear any earrings at all. They have to be clean shaven. They have to have a decent haircut, follow regulations. So, just that alone is a big change for them because it's different."

The Gen. John Vessey Leadership Academy is named for the Minnesota native who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Reagan. The new charter school offers a Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps curriculum for grades nine through 12. It's located in a St. Paul city recreation center near Lake Phalen. Enrollment is expected to reach nearly 90 students. The racial mix is similar to most St. Paul public schools.

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Image Lt. Col. Douglas Trenda

Lt. Col. Douglas Trenda, the school commandant, says students are coming from throughout the Twins Cities metro area. He says students and their parents are hungry for a school that fosters structure, discipline, accountability, responsibility and leadership.

"We know for a fact, that given that environment, academics flourish," Trenda said. "Because it takes away so many other distracters to education. What color your hair is, how many earrings you've got, how low your pants are, derogatory things, it takes away all that because everyone is in a uniform."

Charter schools are independent public schools, often run by parents and teachers. They operate free from many state regulations as long as they produce results. Trenda says the Vessey school is not designed as a training program for the army, but he says students who are keen on military service will be encouraged to explore that option.

Doug Nonemaker of Roseville says that's the main reason his 10th grade daughter Grace enrolled.

"My daughter has had an interest in the military as a career and has always been interested in military academy," Nonemaker said

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Image My Lai Tenner

There are few public military schools throughout the country. Minnesota's charter school boom has hatched two in the same year. The Col. Charles Young Military Academy, located on University Avenue, is preparing for 250 students in fifth through eighth grade. Ninety-eight percent are African American. The school is named after the third black graduate of West Point. Students spent three weeks of their summer at a special bootcamp getting ready for the school year. Founder and director My Lai Tenner says the school will help struggling students succeed through a back to basics approach to learning and military-style discipline.

"This environment does work if given the time to reach some children," Tenner said. "Now we can't save them all, but we're going to save the masses I believe. And we just have to be due diligent and take our time and just walk step by step every day and stay strong together as a staff and also strong with our families and communicate. We'll do some great things."

Tenner says he's been overwhelmed by the response from parents. Every seat is filled, and there are hundreds of names on a waiting list.

Kimberly D'Antignac enrolled two sons who attended another St. Paul charter school last year. She says the school can provide the direction they need to become young men. Nathaniel D'Antignac, who will start seventh grade, says he's expecting a school year much different than what he's used to.

"More teachers screaming at me, doing more pushups and maybe more learning," D'Antignac said.

The Col. Charles Young Military Academy will expand its space in the Griggs Midway building next year to accommodate the addition of ninth through 12th grade.

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