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Army bugle heralds a fresh start

UNITED STATES

THE SOUND of drums, bugles, and hard-soled shoes marching in lock-step on a wooden floor, drowns out the traffic noise that surrounds Chicago's newest state school.

The 15-year-old students, dressed in army-style uniforms, stand stiffly to attention as the flag is raised outside their school - a restored military armoury that has become an island of order in the tempest of the city's notorious south side.

"About face!" roars the principal, a colonel in the National Guard. "Left flank! Right flank!"

This is the Chicago Military Academy - the first public school in the nation run by the US Army's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a voluntary programme that normally offers military drills and instruction to a few students at participating schools, but has never before run one.

It was the residents of this low-income community - many of them military veterans - who invited the JROTC to run their local state school. The proposal coincided with a plan to renovate the dilapidated 1914 armoury on the site, so the two initiatives were merged.

The 149 students in the charter class had to apply for admission and were interviewed by staff, who include uniformed, retired military officers. School begins with breakfast at 7am - about an hour earlier than at other state schools - and students line up for roll call and the raising of the flag at precisely 7.26am.

Studies include the usual English, mathematics and science, but also military history, military science, and physical education. Students must attend a two-week military class during the summer. They greet their teachers and administrators as "sir"; lateness is not tolerated and everything is spit-and-polish.

By 2002, the school roll will grow to about 540 students, with 97 per cent black and Hispanic.

"Everybody has been fishing for a way to make things better," says the school's commandant, retired Brigadier General Frank Bacon. "We hope we have the answer to providing a good education."

Officials say JROTC students consistently get better grades than their counterparts in other schools, and have more motivation, self-confidence, comradeship and discipline. In all, about 8,000 students participate in JROTC chapters at 41 of Chicago's 600 mainstream schools.

There is no requirement that they go on to military service.

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