School Transformation Commands Attention
Iowa has produced more than its fair share of talent and some names that everyone knows. Think 31st U.S. President Herbert Hoover, late night talk show host Johnny Carson, world-renowned opera singer Simon Estes, and even the iconic actor John Wayne. And, the Hawkeye state continues to nurture and develop the talent and skills of its young people.
One place where students are developing their talents and leadership skills is at North High School, located just west of the Des Moines River. The school is located in an economically depressed neighborhood, where boarded-up homes line the street, businesses have locked their doors and moved away, and poverty and crime are pervasive. Within the school, teen pregnancy and homelessness are issues, as well as the fact that many student hold full-time jobs to support siblings and parents.
North High School has been underperforming for many years. Proficiency in math and reading has hovered around the 50 percent mark for seven years, which is one of the reasons why the school recently received $3.7 million in School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds from the U.S. Department of Education.
But despite the challenges, the school has some great things going for it, namely its students. Des Moines Education Association President Melissa Spencer, a former science teacher at North, says, “The school itself is safe, and the students are delightful and supportive of one another—it’s a good school.”
And it’s a promising school because talented and accomplished educators are making a difference in the lives of young students with a new focus on instruction. One of those dedicated educators is First Drill Sergeant George Jackson.
Jackson is everything one would expect from a drill sergeant—firm, loud, and in your face. When he bellows out an order, he immediately commands the attention of his audience, and cadets quickly fall in line.
The 44-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran—and NEA member—is charged with North’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program, ranked one of the best programs in the nation and the only one in Des Moines.
Evidence of JROTC’s success is evident in Jackson’s classroom, where trophies take over display cases, desks, and floor space. But Jackson says those trophies are beside the point, because “the real trophies are right here,” he says as he pats the shoulders of some of his students.
In Jackson’s JROTC program, students become better citizens through discipline, responsibility and respect. Students who previously struggled in school have shown steady improvement. But some of his students don’t believe in their own progress, Jackson says, “because their grades have always been bad, and this perception is hard to change.”
But he works hard to change this perception by instilling self-confidence in his cadets, and showing them the value of self-worth. With his cadets in formation, he tells them, “All you have to do is believe in yourself and not allow anyone to tell you what you can’t do!”
But the real testimony of success lies within the students. Many cadets say that without this program, there would be no commitment to self improvement, responsibility or pride.
High school senior David Nolasco, for example, who comes from a rough neighborhood, says he lacked focus and discipline.
“Honestly, if it weren’t for this program, I wouldn’t be doing community service,” Nolasco says. “Instead, I’d be hanging out with my friends and on drugs.”
But a visit from one of Jackson’s former JROTC student changed Nolasco’s mind. “When I saw a former student come back as a Marine, I noticed how he spoke and saw how he held himself—with respect. And, I wanted that.”
A little encouragement from Jackson also goes a long way. Jackson is known by many of his cadets for checking up on them to make sure they’re where they should be—in the classroom, learning.
According to Nolasco, on any given day Jackson would show up to each of his classes. “When I saw he was serious, I decided to make things better for myself.”
With this JROTC program North is providing an opportunity for students to change the course of their lives, and Jackson is leading the way. Students have become more involved in their community. They volunteer at church and soup kitchens, and they organize food drives and raise money for local charity events. Many of the students have also earned national recognition from highly competitive drill team championships, and some have already received scholarships to attend top military academies.
Jackson understands that not all success comes from achievement tests, but also from students discovering their own capabilities.
“I don’t know where I would be without JROTC,” said high school senior Jacob Key. “I would be the same person as before, but now I’m more focused, disciplined and organized,” which are contributing factors in helping transform North.