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Maritime Charter School students dress — and drill, and study — for success

One student is graduating after three years with plans to become a physician assistant. Another graduating junior has been drafted by a hockey team and hopes to play in the National Hockey League. A senior is planning to attend seminary and be ordained a Catholic priest.

The students are taking these diverse paths after spending their high school years in the uniform of the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at the Western New York Maritime Charter School in Buffalo. Like their classmates, whom they call “shipmates,” each has a rank, understands military protocol, and can bark out, “Aye aye, sir!” in response to an order. But like most of the sixth graduating class at the school, they have no immediate plans to enter the military – and some have no plan to ever enlist.

The Junior ROTC training “is definitely something I wanted to experience, but now that I have gone through it I don’t think I really want to go into the military,” said Cadet Seaman Melanie Montanez, 17, who lives on the West Side. “I want to go to college first and get a career going.”

“Usually 10 to 15 percent of the graduating class goes into the military,” said Commandant Lawrence Astyk, whose civilian title would be principal. This year, four students from a graduating class of 62 will go into college ROTC programs; seven or eight more plan to enlist.

“Nobody here looks down on those who do not choose the military,” said Melinda Callihan, chair of the humanities department at the school. “We want kids to be successful and be leaders within their community, no matter what that community ends up being.”

“We call this a leadership factory,” said Astyk, a Bishop Timon and Naval Academy graduate who served 28 years in the Marine Corps before retiring in 2004 as a lieutenant colonel. “They get more leadership and citizenship training here than most Americans ever will.”

Since it was founded in 2004, Western New York Maritime Charter School has become a sought-after option for students from 18 school districts, as far away as Niagara Falls and Angola. The cadet corps now includes students who have transferred to Maritime from Buffalo Seminary, St. Francis High School and public schools across the region.

It didn’t start out that way. In the first years of the school, most of the students were enrolled at the request of their parents or guardians who “wanted the discipline and structure,” Astyk said. In 2004, the 135 ninth-graders who attended the school in its temporary home at the Rev. Bennett W. Smith Family Life Center on Michigan Avenue were disruptive and defiant, wearing gang colors along with their uniforms. Then-commandant Richard Middaugh, a retired Navy aviator and former English teacher, spent much of his time dealing with conduct issues. Astyk was hired halfway through that year, and together he and Middaugh were able to start to make changes.

“Sixty to 70 percent of our students now choose to come here themselves,” said Cmdr. Tony Deaville, vice-commandant for the junior ROTC program and teacher of the mandatory Naval Science classes.

The State Education Department’s statistics show that class that started at Maritime in 2007 had a 78.4 percent graduation rate four years later, with 5.9 percent of the students in that class still enrolled and working toward their diplomas. Buffalo public schools, excluding charter schools, have a 54 percent graduation rate after four years; statewide, the number is 74 percent.

Astyk said that many of the students who enrolled in Maritime in 2007 and did not graduate in four years “haven’t been in this building for two or three years.”

Among the members of the class of 2013, he says “it looks as though 100 percent” of those who started as freshmen and were attending school at the start of their senior year will graduate.

Different journeys

Montanez, who plans to attend D’Youville and study to be a physician assistant, said that the lessons she has learned at Maritime – “integrity, honesty, courage, commitment” – will help her in civilian life. She is one of three calendar year juniors who have accumulated enough credits to graduate.

“New York State requires that students have 22 credits to graduate; we require 24,” said Astyk. “We have eight periods a day, and can add a ninth period, so after three years, some students are ready to graduate.

Another graduating junior is Cadet Seaman Apprentice Frank Hora of Cheektowaga, who just turned 17 and has been drafted by the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. Hora is glad that he was able to complete his high school education before pursuing his dream of playing professional hockey.

“The teachers have been here for me whenever I needed them,” said Hora, a 6-foot-tall defenseman who has played for the Buffalo Junior Sabres.

Cadet Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Donovan, 18, from South Buffalo, spent his senior year as executive officer. He will enter the ROTC program at Canisius College and study philosophy and theology, with the goal of attending seminary and being ordained into the priesthood, and possibly pursue a career as a military chaplain. “I would like to serve God and his people fully and to the best of my ability,” he said.

One graduating senior who chose immediate enlistment is this year’s valedictorian, Cadet Senior Chief Andrea Frey, 18, of Lockport. Frey was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, but chose to enlist in the Air Force with the goal of getting a college degree in meteorology. One of seven children, she has excelled at academics and activities.

Students step up

Today, students supervise and maintain order in the school and during events outside the school. As Astyk approached the cafeteria before the start of classes, a student opened the door for him and shouted, “Attention on deck!” Every student fell silent, rose and remained standing until Astyk released them.

Rather than attendance, each class begins with muster, with each student snapping to attention and answering, “Yes, sir,” or “Yes, ma’am,” as his or her name is called. “Muster is a great transition between the activity of the hallway and learning,” said Deaville. “It stabilizes the class and gets them ready to learn.”

The halls are silent and empty during class periods, and the classrooms themselves are quiet. “We don’t have any roamers, kids roaming the halls,” said Astyk.

One student who was late to a class entered the room and immediately began the required penalty of push-ups. When he finished, Astyk complimented him for beginning the push-ups himself without requiring the teacher to interrupt her class remind him.

“And be on time next time,” he added.

Of course, some students resist the discipline and structure, and charter schools may expel them. Deaville says 22 students were asked to leave the school this academic year, down from the 30 or 40 expelled in past years. “They want to fight the system,” he said. “They are allowed to be kids, but there are things they can’t do; they can’t cuss, they can’t hit other kids.

“Kids have to understand that actions have consequences,” Deaville said. “If they can learn that lesson now, it’s to their benefit. We want them to be on time and do their work, because when they get a job their boss will want them to be on time and do their work.”

Astyk meets regularly with prospective students who are considering attending Maritime. One teenager who visited in early June had seen the drill team at a public event and wanted to be part of the award-winning synchronized marching unit, which includes a flashy rifle spinning team. Those cadets twirl, throw and catch their 9.5-pound, World War I-era bolt-action Springfield rifles with grace and precision.

A few days before the deadline to submit student applications, Amanda Dixon, 15, of West Seneca, toured the school with her mother, Sandra Sparacino, and older sister, Alysha Sparacino. Dixon, who plans to enlist in the Marine Corps, learned about Maritime from a military recruiter.

“Most of the recruiters now know about us,” said New York Army National Guard Major Jon F. Mellott, the school’s director of instructional services.

After her tour, Dixon said, “I liked all the teachers; they were very welcoming.” Her mother left with an application.

“Anybody can come; anybody is eligible to come,” said Astyk. “We want to keep the doors open to everybody.”

“You want to look good in that uniform, which represents our school, the 3,000 high schools that have Junior ROTC as well as military veterans throughout the country,” said Astyk as incoming students lined up to be inspected at 7:15 a.m.

Montanez said her first days wearing the uniform were challenging. “They were really strict, you had to have your shoes shined and everything, but it became easier as you continued, and then it became like second nature.”

At the end of the school year, seniors turn in their uniforms and then wear the school polo shirt and khaki pants, along with a class-designed hoodie.

‘That’s her resume’

The uniform also contains visible symbols of each cadet’s accomplishments. “That’s her resume, right there,” said Deaville, gesturing toward Mann’s rows of ribbons for academic and military achievements.

The more a cadet excels, the more his or her uniform is decorated. Cadet Lt. Maxwell DiNatale, 17, of Kenmore, next year’s community action officer and commander of the air rifle team, wears a dress uniform that is bright with ribbons, medals won in competitions and bright green aiguillettes, elaborately braided and looped cords worn on the shoulder.

“Getting good grades here is cool,” said Deaville. It’s also immediately apparent. Students who make the merit roll get their black name tags replaced with silver ones; those on the honor roll wear gold name tags.

“It’s an effective reward,” said Callihan. “They really want those silver and gold name tags. They are constantly coming and checking with us, ‘What do I have to do to get that A?’ ”

“Everyone can see how well you have done,” said Montanez.

The academic challenges offered at Maritime attracted Cadet Ensign Leann Roland, 16, who lives on the East Side. “There were greater chances for me to succeed academically, and I wanted to go into the Navy,” she said. Maritime offers some classes that carry college credit – “our goal is to have students graduate with 9 to 12 college credits,” said Astyk.

Callihan, who is in her 13th year of teaching, said she was initially unsure how she would fit in at Maritime. But she said she soon realized, “They are wearing the uniform, and they say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No ma’am,’ but they are still kids and I am there to teach them English. We still service special-education students, we still service English language learners, we still have all of the same programs that any school in our city has. The bottom line is that it’s really just a high school, except that the kids have a discipline system in place so I can do my job effectively. You don’t have the same level of disrespect or apathy.”

Handing over command

The building the school occupies was built as a livery stable, then used as a warehouse. Today it has 40 classrooms, a library, media center, weight room, assembly hall and offices, along with an outdoor blacktopped area for marching called the drill deck. The hallways and offices are decorated with military posters and artifacts, many from the collection of the building’s owner, Attorney Thomas H. Burton.

On a sun-splashed day during the final week of classes, students gathered on the drill deck for a ceremony to wrap up the school year. Cadet Battalion Commander Brandon Cruz, 17, from Hamburg, the highest-ranking cadet in the school, ceremonially handed over the school flag – and with it, command – to next year’s battalion commander, junior Alex Campbell, a member of the school’s drill team and academic team, whom Astyk described as “a very motivated and dependable individual.”

First, Deaville attached streamers to the top of the school flag designating the school as a distinguished unit with honors, a citation given by the regional Naval Junior ROTC office. In 2011, the school was first named a distinguished unit; in 2012 and 2013 it had “honors” added.

Donovan then presented the flag to Cruz, who ceremonially handed it over to Campbell. Although all three maintained perfect discipline, Cruz admitted later that handing over the flag – and all it symbolized – was sad. After graduation Friday, he will attend The Ohio State University, enter the Marine Corps ROTC program and study political science and U.S. history, leading to a pre-law program.

Astyk said he understands that asking adolescents to modify the way they dress and act in public, the very methods many teens use to express themselves, requires a sacrifice.

“I tell them that you may have to give up some of your individuality, but you give that up to join something very big and powerful, something that’s respected throughout the country, something that will really set you up to be successful when you graduate. They realize it’s worth the sacrifice, to act and look a certain way, to become part of something special.”