Toeing the Line: The Uncertain Future of Cleveland Naval Junior Academy
When the school board threatened to close the city’s only military academy, students and alumni rallied around the school. But can it endure?
Photography by Whitney Curtis
By Rosalind Early
It’s 0700 hours, and the students at Cleveland Junior Naval Academy are lined up in the gym according to company, or grade level. The seniors are Alphas, the freshmen are Deltas, and students are further subdivided into platoons. Each of the 16 platoons comprises approximately 20 students.
Before them stand their teachers and principal, as well as the battalion staff, seniors with schoolwide leadership positions who wear braided golden cords over their shoulders. It’s Friday, so the students are wearing tan button-down shirts and black pants with freshly polished shoes, because they’ll be inspected later. (Normally, they wear white dress shirts.) The battalion commander, a senior and the school’s top cadet, calls the students to attention as the color guard marches in.
This is muster. At Cleveland, a military magnet school that’s part of the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, this is also how school begins every morning. Five minutes later, the battalion commander releases students to their platoon commanders, who address any issues with uniforms or behavior before dismissing platoons to breakfast. By 7:20 a.m., they’re in class.
Again, the platoon commander calls students to attention before class begins. If a student is late, he must “pound the pine” (knock on the door) and request “permission to come aboard.” When it’s granted, the teacher usually tells the student to do 20 push-ups, and the platoon commander counts them out.
Maybe it’s the military discipline that keeps Cleveland’s attendance near-perfect and the graduation rate at 100 percent. In contrast to some troubled St. Louis charter and public schools, Cleveland’s accreditation is secure; it consistently has met standards for Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act, and the 2012 graduating class of 52 students earned more than $1.5 million in scholarships.
But it’s apparent that the school is struggling in other ways.
The academy’s exterior looks like an annex tacked on to the towering Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. Inside, visitors pass through a metal detector before stepping into the unremarkable halls, lined with dingy carpet and busted lockers. The school used to boast that it was second in size only to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Now, it has 266 students, making it one of the smallest high schools in St. Louis.
Principal Susan Viviano wasn’t surprised when superintendent Kelvin Adams and the school board considered closing the school in March. “Dr. Adams and I had this discussion almost every year, because I didn’t have enough kids,” says Viviano. “Four hundred kids was his magic number, and I said I had not been able to get those.”
She also wasn’t surprised when students swarmed school-board meetings and community forums to protest their school closing. But she wasn’t expecting alumni to fly in from Hawaii and call from Afghanistan. Local media began picking up stories about dedicated alums and students trying to get neighbors to sign petitions. Students and parents appeared on TV, explaining what the school meant to them. They used words like “pride,” “direction," and “opportunity.”
“We needed to convince [Adams] that this particular part of his enterprise was a productive one,” says naval science teacher Capt. Peter Davenport, a retired U.S. Navy officer. “Frankly, I think it was the kids who showed him that. The product sold itself. The kids changed his heart.”
Adams says the decision had more to do with numbers. “Obviously, people are really passionate about the school,” he says. “For me, what changed was a real plan to improve enrollment.”
The school received a reprieve, but not without having to make major changes. And Cleveland still faces an uncertain future.
Kennard NJROTC Academy opened on Potomac Street in south St. Louis in 1981, as part of the city’s desegregation efforts to attract a diverse group of students. Three years after opening, the magnet school graduated 54 students.
Lt. Col. Keith Porter was part of that first class. His nickname was Bugle Boy, because he was the battalion bugler. Attending the school led him to enlist in the Army. “Just the discipline and the camaraderie and the military structure were great,” he says.
After Porter graduated, the academy moved to Cleveland High School, on Louisiana Avenue, because it had already outgrown its original building. Designed by famed architect William Ittner, Cleveland was affectionately called The Castle. The academy remained there throughout the ’90s, with enrollment hovering around 900. Yet the district wasn’t able to keep the building in repair. By 2006, the walls were crumbling, wiring was exposed, and the school district abruptly decided to close it.
“I showed up to The Castle to open summer school and found out it wasn’t going to be there,” recalls Viviano, who was an assistant principal at the time. “It was going to be at Pruitt Middle School—I didn’t even know where Pruitt was.”
When the academy moved to Pruitt, located in Carr Square, it lost about half of its students. After several years there—and several principals—the school moved back to South City. In 2010, it took up residence at Central VPA High School, near Tower Grove Park.
“If you walk in this building, you get inside and still have to ask, ‘Am I in the right place?’” jokes Davenport. “Our nomadic existence and scarce resources have made trying to put us on the map very challenging.”
The school’s military discipline also deters some students. “Some people don’t want to come here because our reputation is that we’re strict and hard,” says senior Victoria Cole.
The Navy has cut back as well. It used to offer summer boot camps for all enrolled students every year; now it’s more selective, and students can only attend one time. The Navy has also eliminated the Friday inspection uniforms with the tan shirts and made it more difficult to get dress uniforms, which are required for the school’s Naval Ball (its version of prom). And to increase enrollment, the academy accepted nearly every applicant for next year, though Viviano worries not all of them will thrive.
“If kids want to be here, they are almost always successful,” she says. “If they don’t want to be here and only their parents want them to be here because the student has huge issues with authority, they have a hard time here. We need to have kids that we can get buy-in from.”
Soon, too, the school won’t be strictly a military academy, because it’s adding a middle school. The younger students will be required to wear uniforms and follow much of the same military protocol, though they legally can’t be in NJROTC because of their ages.
Viviano and the students are optimistic about the changes, though. This summer, the school is getting a renovation that will include new floors, a new gym ceiling, and a sign out front. And Adams seems to be in support of keeping the school open—for now.
“There’s no plan in my head to go back and close the school next year or the year after,” he says. “I will look at the numbers. If the numbers go up to 200 next year, then I’ll be back to have that conversation again. And if the numbers go up to 400 next year, there’s not anything to talk about.”
In the meantime, both students and alumni are continuing to tout the school’s methods. “When you have cardinal virtues and discipline as a way of life, the school works a whole lot better,” says Porter. “It instills a sense of service. If all of the schools in the St. Louis Public Schools system were run like Cleveland, it would make a really big difference.”
“From day one, they have a plan for you,” senior Sarah Pisciotta says. “They help you navigate what direction you want to go.” Students can go to anyone who teaches their subject for after-school tutoring, and upperclassmen use free periods to tutor underclassmen.
“We just nag the daylights out of them,” says Viviano. “The kids here understand that failure is not an option.”
Or as one student at the academy put it, “We come here because this is the place where people love us.”