A naval prep school opts for new course


LEONARDTOWN - In a quiet corner of Southern Maryland, boys and girls as young as 11 troop to class in Navy uniforms, salute superiors and abide by an honor code.

The young midshipmen pray three times a day. They may not talk in the halls or wear scuffed shoes, lest they be forced to drop for push-ups.

If the Leonard Hall Junior Naval Academy seems a little old-fashioned, it is for good reason.

The 95-year-old institution, in a small brick building here in the St. Mary's County seat, is the only private military school left in Maryland.

The nation's once-robust ranks of military prep schools have dwindled from the hundreds a century ago to fewer than three dozen today. Many went under in the 1970s, victims of the military's faded glory after the Vietnam War and of the rise of the private country day school.

Maryland's most famous, the two-century-old Charlotte Hall, which closed in 1976 on the brink of bankruptcy, was one of at least a dozen that once operated in the state.

Leonard Hall's survival owes much to its location in rural St. Mary's County, where generations of tobacco farmers and watermen fought to shield community institutions from the outside world.

But the school has also shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the times. And as the county undergoes sharp demographic shifts, Leonard Hall is once again setting a new, and improbable, course: It is expanding.

The school has launched a bold campaign to grow to 500 students, from 96 today, over the next eight years. It wants to raise $5 million for new buildings.

It is tossing out the insular outlook that defined it for a century, and is looking for alumni, foundations and corporations to pay for it all - and help raise student achievement.

"We are taking a whole different tack from what's been going on in the past," says Alan M. Bodle, a former Navy SEAL instructor appointed last fall to the school's new post of executive director.

Behind the turnabout is the changing character of St. Mary's County.

Changing times

The tobacco-growing elite who once sent their children to Leonard Hall have given way to Washington commuters and to military officers from the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station, an aircraft testing post that saw its work force soar over the past decade to nearly 20,000.

Farm fields and rural roads have been replaced by housing developments and strip malls. Leonardtown's once-beleaguered town square now has a health food store and a French restaurant, Cafe des Artistes. No other Maryland county saw faster job or personal income growth in the late 1990s.

A new set of parents on Leonard Hall's board requested an in-house review of the school's performance and demanded change last year after finding poor SAT scores and a low rate of graduates completing college. Of last spring's senior class of four, only one went to a four-year college, Towson University.

"Parents were not willing to pay $4,000 [tuition] to have their kid be a marginal 12th-grade student who can't get into college," says Robert B. Guild, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and American Airlines pilot who was then board president. "Twenty years ago, that wasn't an issue because the expectations weren't there."

Change won't come easy.

Leonard Hall has an annual budget of just $500,000, no name recognition and alumni records so thin that administrators say they have no idea whether any graduates have gone on to fame or fortune.

And what little growth there has been in high school-level military education is at tuition-free public schools.

The public Forestville Military Academy opened in Prince George's County in 2002 as part of a small national movement to rescue chaotic schools in poor neighborhoods. The Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, at two dozen Maryland high schools, has seen enrollment in the state grow from 3,000 to 3,600 since 2000.

Most of Maryland's private military prep schools - places such as Cambridge Military Academy on the Eastern Shore and the Army & Navy Preparatory School in Baltimore-closed long ago. A few, such as the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, evolved into college prep schools.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the war in Iraq have fueled interest in military colleges but not in military prep schools, says Lewis Sorley, executive director of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States.

The reason, he says, is that the prep schools' mission is not to mint warriors but to teach self-discipline and study habits.

At Leonard Hall on a recent Thursday morning, Mitch Goddard, 15, a 10th-grader from St. Mary's, said he had failing grades, got into fistfights and bunked class at two schools before his frustrated parents sent him to Leonard Hall. His self-esteem and test scores rose as he climbed the student hierarchy to become a company commander.

"I went from being down all the time and waking up without a motive to do anything, to saying, 'Maybe I want to go to school today and see what it can give me.' "

The Xaverian Brothers, a Catholic order, founded the school in 1909 and gave it an agricultural focus. Leonard Hall took on a college prep program in 1928, then dropped that in the Depression to become an elementary school.

New direction

In 1941, in the thick of World War II, it adopted the military program, and became a boarding school modeled in part on the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Enrollment reached 200 in the late 1960s.

But as the Vietnam War ground on, applications nose-dived. The Xaverian Brothers shut the school in June 1972. Three months later, however, a group of committed parents reopened it as a day middle school.

It began admitting girls in the late 1970s and opened a high school in 1992. Young "midshipmen" now come from St. Mary's, Calvert, Charles and Prince George's counties.

But Leonard Hall remains unknown even to some of its neighbors.

"I have people down the street who call and say, 'You have what grades over there? And what do you do?'" says Suzanne Curtis, the academic director. "The exposure is not here."

Ruth G. Hill, research director at the St. Mary's County Historical Society, says the county's leading families saw the school's obscurity as a virtue.

They wanted "a quiet and studious place for their children," says Hill. "They basically kept Leonard Hall as a close-to-home type of thing."

Now, school officials see growth - in finances, programs, students and scholarships - as the key to survival.

The board placed the school's headmaster and battalion director under a new post - executive director - charged with forging ties to the outside world.

Bodle, a former combat shooting instructor whose jovial manner leavens the khaki uniform he roams the halls in, is joining business and professional groups to raise the school's profile. He is trying to add more advanced placement courses and enlarge the tiny sports program.

And he is tracking down graduates to form an alumni association, a critical avenue for fund raising. "There may be people who are very famous who went here," he says. "We just haven't been able to identify them."

Sorley, the head of the military school association, says Leonard Hall is taking steps that most military schools took long ago.

"The fact that they've survived for this long must mean that they've been satisfying some constituency," Sorley says. "But remember that great recruiting slogan the Army used for two decades - 'Be all you can be'? They have an outlook now that they can do more."

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