NOMMA Moves into New School

26 December 2013

The New Orleans Advocate covered moving day for the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy.

Military & Maritime Academy moves to new home

The New Orleans Advocate

26 December 2013



For most students on Christmas break, the classroom is the furthest thing from their minds. But 50 Junior ROTC cadets, their parents and teachers at the New Orleans Military & Maritime Academy are spending the holidays moving their Algiers school from its temporary home in the former Navy exchange building in Federal City and into a $14 million complex anchored by two historic brick buildings next door.

When the rest of the 360 students return on Jan. 6, they’ll find the new 71,000-square-foot complex a far cry from the concrete building, originally built as a hospital, where the 3-year-old charter school has operated until now.

NOMMA’s staff is ready for a higher profile as well.

Principal Cecilia Garcia said she thinks the move will help boost enrollment at the school, which was given a grade of B by the state for the current school year.

“People want to make sure that you’re going to stick around,” said Garcia, who came to the academy after 18 years as a principal at high-poverty schools in Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee.

The new building, paid for by school construction bonds and a mix of grants and tax credits, consists of two early 20th-century buildings connected by a new one. It will feature large science and technology labs to suit NOMMA’s emphasis on project-based learning, and the ground floor will be home to the freshman academy. It does not include a gym or auditorium, for which NOMMA uses nearby Federal City facilities.

NOMMA started as a single class of freshmen in 2011, born out of the desire to provide a high school geared toward military families whose younger children attend Belle Chasse Academy. With 20 percent of its maximum allowed enrollment of 600 set aside for military families, it’s the only public high school in the country in which every student is also a member of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.

Col. Bill Davis, the school’s commandant, said the general public has a few misconceptions about NOMMA.

Some think it’s a reform school for rowdy, delinquent kids, he said. Others think it’s an elitist institution inaccessible to the average student. Then there’s the assumption that enrolling at NOMMA means you have to join the military.

“I’m not a recruiter. I work for the state,” Davis said. “It’s a public school, and my job is to educate kids, get them graduated from here and make them productive citizens ready to enter the workforce or college. I don’t get any bonuses, medals, points or awards for kids going into the military.”

Besides, as Davis sees it, the education and life experience that students get at NOMMA will play a key role in enhancing the nation whether they decide a life in the military appeals to them or not. In the global economy, he said, it’s more important than ever that nations produce students with a strong background in science, technology, engineering and math, along with the life skills and sense of responsibility instilled by JROTC.

“We’ve got to grow our own,” he said, “and we’ve got to get them interested now.”

As a Type 2 charter, NOMMA can draw students from anywhere in the state.

After opening with only a freshman class, the school added sophomore and junior classes last year and this year, and will add a senior class in 2014. Today, it has a staff of 42 — 35 of them teachers and JROTC instructors — and 360 students, a number it hopes to grow to 550 next year. Two-thirds of the student body is male, and Davis said its poverty and minority rates are 65 percent.

Forty percent of the students are from Orleans Parish and 35 percent from Jefferson Parish. The rest come from St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.

Davis said while NOMMA isn’t a ticket into the military, its students get a taste of what life in the armed services might be like. The boys get military-style haircuts, and everyone wears uniforms, with their rank indicated on their lapel.

The days start at 7:35 a.m., when the students form up by company, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the cadet’s creed, and hear the names of any U.S. servicemen killed in combat the day before. Classes begin and end with a call to attention, as well.

However, other elements are kept informal, including lunchtime at the cafeteria, Davis said. “We mix them all up, and that’s how they get to know each other as people from different backgrounds,” he said.

Students take four 82-minute classes a day, alternating between days of traditional schooling and days of JROTC classes. Half of students’ four years in JROTC cover the state’s requirement of 1.5 years of physical education and a half-year of hygiene. They also learn military history, civics, citizenship, grooming and nutrition, even how to balance a checkbook, write a résumé and interview for a job.

“Half of what we do is social skills,” Davis said. “Show up. Show up on time. Participate while you’re here. Dress appropriately. We are trying to demonstrate to them what’s going to work for you in the real world when you get out of school and you have to go and compete for jobs.”

JROTC also includes 25 hours of community service per year and a senior project.

Sgt. Maj. Sylvester Browder said JROTC is a particularly good experience for the school’s poorer children because it teaches them the broad concepts of discipline, respect and responsibility for themselves and others.

“My expectations for them are high,” Browder said. “But if you raise the bar, you’ll find out they’ll come to get it.”

Davis and Garcia said the school is constantly working to find ways to make JROTC classes mesh with what the students are learning in their traditional classes, whether it’s matching up lessons in a geography class with what’s being taught in a military history course or doing projects in JROTC that use the skills and programs from computer science class.

The school has gifted and talented programs as well as special education, and there’s an hour at the end of every school day when students having problems in a particular class get extra help in a small-class setting. Those who don’t need the hour for extra help can take a three-week minicourse on whatever subjects the teachers come up with: Mythology, history’s mysteries, piano and even bookbinding have been offered so far.

“They are fast and fun, but they usually involve what I call stealth learning,” Davis said.

Chuck Gardner teaches NOMMA’s four-year cyberscience elective, which includes robotics. Maxed out at 80 students, it is by all accounts the school’s most popular class. “When the kids leave the other classes, they literally run into this classroom,” Browder said.

In the cyberscience course, children learn about electricity, programming, physics and robotics. It also has a humanities component that deals with ethical issues related to the Internet, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Each student has a small robot that they build and program, learning about circuitry, infrared, radio frequency, and digital and analog communication along the way.

“The quickest way to the brain is through the hands,” Gardner explained. “It gives them the freedom to try things out — and if it doesn’t work, you’re not going to hurt anything. You do it again. You redesign, rebuild and retest.”

The program’s next phase will include submersible robots similar to those used to build and repair pipelines underwater, and NOMMA has begun working with Oceaneering International Inc. to design the curriculum for a four-year maritime course.

“We are going to support a starving industry here that has a hard time getting people,” Davis said, noting that robotics competitions, project-based learning and a strong connection between learning and the real world play a big part in the school’s philosophy.

“Kids can see the art of the possible, and that’s what it’s all about. A lot of them, this is what they know about the world,” he said, putting up his hands as blinders. “The more we tell them about it, the more opportunities they see, and they get excited about it and we can get them on a good path to success.”

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