Dreamers: Attention! Left face.
Soldiers: Attention! Inspect the class.
As Sgt. Arthur Shoto Jr. shouts out the order, children line up in the gym at An Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News. A soldier starts down each line, clipboard in hand. Uniform neat and clean? Shoelaces tied? Shoes and socks regulation color? The credits students earn for passing inspection add up quickly, even with occasional demerits for errant shirttails, and are the currency with which they buy supplies at the school bookstore.
The gym is a sea of uniforms. On the men and women of the 7th Transportation Group from Fort Eustis, pressed camouflage and shined boots that speak of discipline, pride and service. The Dreamers' uniforms may not be as crisp, but they're important, too, tangible evidence of their membership in a group with its own code of respect, responsibility and accomplishment.
Uniforms are important to what's going on here.
The soldiers' garb, says Principal Richard Coleman, "represents the beliefs they have in America, in perseverance and service, and the determination to be the best they can be. We want our kids to be the best they can be, too."
These uniforms, and the demeanor of the soldiers who wear them, are models of the character that is as much a part of An Achievable Dream as academics. They represent, says Coleman, "the core values of America: commitment, loyalty, discipline, the kind of things we're trying to teach the children on a daily basis."
Spec. Tim Simmons, recently back from Kuwait, towers over the youngsters he inspects. He seems to enjoy the ritual as much as they do, explaining, "I like to work with the kids. ... It makes my day a little better." His mother was a first-grade teacher, and "I grew up around the age group."
Uniform inspection isn't the morning's first encounter between the 795 Dreamers and "our" soldiers, as they call them. As children arrived at the school doors, each stopped for a hello and look-them-in-the-eye handshake with two soldiers stationed just inside the door. By the time they got to the cafeteria, small cold hands had been warmed by many handshakes, and the occasional hug, with the dozen soldiers who ranged along the corridor.
In the cafeteria, more soldiers were on the move, maintaining a level of peace and decorum remarkable in a room full of hundreds of children having breakfast.
Next stop, for grades two through five, the gym. Before an American flag, 16 soldiers stand at ease. In front of each, a class of children slips into place. Soldiers lead the pledge of allegiance and singing of "The Star Spangled Banner." That -- and the discipline and routine -- made Pfc. Ashrafeen Rizzo feel at home on her first day at An Achievable Dream. In her native Fiji Islands, school meant uniforms, inspections and singing the national anthem.
Relationships between soldiers and children are friendly, even affectionate, with a healthy respect on both sides and a familiarity born of daily contact. Every morning, soldiers greet the Dreamers and run their morning program (volunteers from the Newport News Sheriff's Office help with the middle school morning program). This is a time to reinforce values and celebrate group identity.
The ritual also helps ease children into the order and structure that are the centerpieces of An Achievable Dream -- along with high expectations. Very high. Forget the statistics about how minority and disadvantaged children do in school. These children, every one of them eligible for the federal lunch program and the vast majority of them black, are headed for college or the military.
These expectations, and an understanding that it will take hard work and resolve to realize them, ring out as soldiers and children repeat, with resounding gusto, the slogans that define An Achievable Dream. They're emblazoned on 12 banners that ring the walls, but the children know them so well that, without missing a beat, they insert into the litany the words of a banner that has fallen.
Be cool, stay in school.
Nothing was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
I must learn to earn.
The message the soldiers bring goes beyond words and slogans. Their mere presence -- and the mix of backgrounds among them -- says that anyone can succeed.
"The students look at the soldiers," says Capt. R. Larry Thomas Sr., officer in charge of this project, "and say, 'I can make it,' and the soldiers look at the students and say, 'I made it, and you can, too.' "
For Sgt. Alisa Cogman, being a role model has become a mission: "to show the girls that women can do anything, to let them see women in what is traditionally a male occupation."
For a group of students of whom society doesn't expect much, the presence of the soldiers says something else: that the community believes that they can and will beat the odds. It says, "We believe in you enough to come down here and invest our time every day."
That message came through loud and clear for fifth-grader Andre Barnes: "They want to get us ready for the future. They come down here every morning and get to know us and help us." Sgt. Shoto is Andre's favorite: "He just cares about us so much."
What's in it for the soldiers? The gratification of making a difference. Some grew up in difficult circumstances and know, says Thomas, that the children lined up before them "very well could have been one of us."
The Fort Eustis commander, Brig. Gen. Brian I. Geehan, said one soldier explained why he volunteers this way: "I wish I had had this program and someone like me when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. My life would have been a lot easier."
Some of the soldiers return, on their own time, during parent-teacher conferences, so families can meet them. Some show up for classroom parties. Some fill in the rough spots, buying a belt for a child who is without one day after day. When a bit of attitude seemed to be brewing among some older students, soldiers hatched a plan to erect obstacle courses -- an easy one for little kids, a more challenging one for older children, a lesson in perseverance.
Why has the Army supported this program for more than 10 years? It is, says Geehan, "an opportunity for Fort Eustis to give back to this tremendous community." His predecessors went out of their way to brief him on the project, and after visiting the school he understands why.
Most of those who make the long trek to 16th Street each day are nominated by their units because they fit the model of discipline and service. Some volunteer repeatedly. Every 90 days, a group rotates out to devote full time to soldiering. Another group takes its place.
And they plant seeds that may take years to mature. Every year, several Dreamers join the military. When one former student joined the Marines, Coleman and other Achievable Dream staff made the trip to Parris Island, S.C., for his boot camp graduation. Afterwards, back at the barracks, they were introduced to the drill instructor -- a species not easily impressed or surprised. But this one was puzzled, for he had never heard of a recruit inviting a middle school principal to graduation or, stranger still, of one driving eight hours to attend. Coleman recalled what the drill instructor said:
"I don't know what this program you've got is all about, but it's like nothing I've ever seen." And a big reason for that is the "Dream Team" from Fort Eustis.