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Back-to-basics training

Culture | EDUCATION: By renewing its Christian vision, Mississippi's Chamberlain-Hunt Academy stemmed a decline common to military schools

Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

THE NATCHEZ TRACE, HOME TO wild turkey, buzzards, and box turtles, cuts a path through thick forests past Indian mounds and caves as it winds its way from Nashville to Natchez. Near Nashville, bicyclists are common, but further south pedestrians and cyclists are rare. Last May, however, travelers along the Trace would have seen a dozen or so camouflage-wearing young men tracing a route taken by General U.S. Grant's army during the Civil War.

The teens are members of Chamberlain-Hunt Academy's (CHA) Order of Crusaders, and they earned the privilege of carrying 45-pound packs while hiking 51 miles in 90-degree heat by demonstrating leadership at the 175-year-old military school.

A decade ago such a hike wouldn't have happened. The military boarding school, located in historic Port Gibson, Miss., the town U.S. Grant said was "too beautiful to burn," had dwindled to 22 students who floundered in an institution that had lost its Christian mooring and become another white-flight school in the 1960s.

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CHA wasn't the only military school going through hard times. The influence of the Vietnam War and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s made military schools seem irrelevant-and perhaps dangerous. Many lost confidence in their programs and tried to downplay their military roots in order to attract students. But despite such efforts to remake itself, CHA continued its decline. Unable to keep up maintenance on its large, turn-of-the-century facility, the school was on the verge of closing in 1998 when French Camp Academy bought it.

French Camp, a boarding school in northern Mississippi, invested several million dollars to restore the school's physical plant. More importantly, though, French Camp brought a renewed Christian vision to the school. CHA now has an explicitly Christian mission-"knowledge and wisdom in submission to God"-that it seeks to implement in all its programs. Although many military schools have a spiritual component, few lay out their beliefs so clearly: "We believe that God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, is the sole source of all knowledge.... We believe that through discipline we learn humility. In humility we learn our own weakness. And in weakness we learn reliance on the sovereignty of God."

The school has experienced rapid growth since the French Camp purchase. The dorms are full and the school is in the midst of developing 70 acres of the campus into a wilderness camp with ropes courses and other facilities.

Shane Blanton, executive director and principal of CHA, is a bow-tie wearing, professorial-looking man who doesn't look like he'd head up a military school for boys. He's been there for the past five years.

"We don't have bad kids," he says. "They're kids who need a lot of structure. They tend to be leaders." He describes his students as boys who have learned how to manipulate their parents. Many come from broken homes. Most have been kicked out of other schools and a few, especially in the first years after the French Camp takeover, had been in trouble with the law. Some have learning disabilities and most are on some kind of medication to control behavior when they first come. The school works closely with a doctor and has found that about 80 percent of the time structure successfully replaces medication.

The structure comes naturally in a military setting. Students wear uniforms and shoulder boards; they have ranks and drill. When they break the rules, they learn to pay the consequences.

The school's 121 boarding students, all male, live in dorms where house parents, called TAC officers, play a crucial role. At some military schools these fellows would be retired military officers, but at Chamberlain-Hunt they are often former youth directors at churches. It's their job to bring discipline and structure into the lives of these boys.

Although girls may attend CHA as day students, two years ago the school stopped accepting them into the boarding program. Maintaining discipline was a major headache with a co-ed facility. "'Struggle' was not a good word for it," Mr. Blanton said.

He adds that the first months of a new student's life at CHA "are interesting. They do a lot of hard work." That phrase doesn't just mean they work hard, although they do, but it means that they put in 30 minutes of physical training (often running or push-ups at 5:00 in the morning) for each demerit they earn-and they tend to earn lots of demerits. Although at first the discipline may focus on negative consequences for bad behavior, students also are rewarded for good behavior: Good grades can yield weekends at home.

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