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WUNC's American Graduate Project is part of a nationwide public media conversation about the dropout crisis. We'll explore the issue through news reports, call-in programs and a forum produced with UNC-TV. Also as a part of this project we've partnered with the Durham Nativity School and YO: Durham to found the WUNC Youth Radio Club. These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and these generous funders: Project Funders:GlaxoSmithKlineThe Goodnight Educational FoundationJoseph M. Bryan Foundation State FarmThe Grable FoundationFarrington FoundationMore education stories from WUNC

162-Year-Old Oak Ridge Military Academy Marches On

One of the nation's oldest military schools is located just a few miles northwest of Greensboro. Oak Ridge Military Academy recently began its 163rd academic year. However, for a time it looked as though the school was going to close. In the face of growing competition, low enrollment and unstable leadership, the academy changed course.  And for now Oak Ridge marches on.

This week North Carolina Public Radio is looking at school communities. This is the fourth installment of a five-part series.

Wearing Army fatigues, berets and combat boots the young cadets fall into line each morning at quarter to seven. Buzz cuts for the boys.  Ponytails tucked away by the girls. A loud attendance report starts the day.

"Who-ah, receive the report," bellows one cadet.

A moment later the flag goes up; and, in the event that anyone is still struggling to wake-up, reveille follows. Then, it's off to the dining hall.

This display of precision is part of the discipline Oak Ridge Military Academy prides itself on. It's the third-oldest Military Academy in the country, and the only one in North Carolina. The student-led morning routine takes place in front of the main administration building, where a very different scene played out a few years ago.

"In 2009, the president at the time stood on the doorsteps and said we were going to close," remembers Dan Nobles, the president of Oak Ridge.

For decades the student body had been around 200, but enrollment had dropped to 45. The outlook was grim.

"It's been a rocky road. It has been a challenge, as it has been for many private schools." Nobles said. "There's been a succession of leadership in this office and when that happens the turbulence isn't good for anyone."

Nobles served 30 years in Military, including three tours at the Pentagon, before he retired and became an Anglican priest. He's led the school for a little more than year, but that's about as long as his three predecessors combined. 

Nobles says the school is doing much better. Eighty cadets are enrolled, and the school recently received a received a seven-figure gift from a local foundation.

There is a growing number of international students representing China, Angola, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, as well as several Latin American countries.

There is a growing number of international students as well, representing China, Angola, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, as well as several Latin American countries. Nobles has a recruitment trip to India planned for next summer.

Isacio Albier is one of the international cadets. He says that his native Honduras is a developing nation, but there are problems.

"It was very high in violence and my parents didn't exactly feel confident that anything wouldn't happen. They took the proper precautions to ensure my safety," Isacio said.

Families of international students readily pay the $28,000 tuition bill. Staff members describe the school as a college-prep rather than a military-prep school. They say that distinction has helped attract foreign students, as well as those in need of more structure.

"I got kicked out of my old school. I cussed out my teacher and glued a bunch of stuff to her desk - pencil sharpeners, key board, paper clips," said 15-year-old Ethan Garcia from nearby Summerfield.

Ethan says he hasn't done anything similar at Oak Ridge because he would get "smoked or 'P.T.'d." (P.T. is intense physical training that takes place when someone breaks the rules.)

"Punishment gets harsh around here," shared senior Caitlin Lambe. "I have not experienced being made [to throw up], but I've seen it. And that's not even as bad as it gets." Caitlin and some of the other students say breaking down physically and mentally has actually helped make them stronger.

"Every day you wake-up and your day is regimented to the very minor things you do," said Nathan Freeman. He's the Battalion Commander of the Cadet Core, a position similar to class president. Nathan, a senior, has benefited from the structure.

"That's helped me astronomically in my grades. Because I sit down every day, for at least an hour and a half [and] I'm studying," Nathan said, adding that without such structure, his time was spent texting or watching TV.

Freeman is applying to West Point and Virginia Military Institute as well as UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. He wants to earn a degree in criminal justice and go to law school. Last year 28 graduates went to college and one enlisted.

"Sometimes I'll talk to civic groups and I'll say we're not a school," said Dan Nobles, the school president. "What we are is a community."

Nobles hopes to grow the community to 200 hundred cadets in the next few years. He'd like to overhaul the athletic department, recruit more international students and continue to tout leadership and discipline. However big the group becomes, the day still begins each morning by the front steps, under the flag pole - at 6:45.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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