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EDUCATION: By renewing its Christian vision, Mississippi's Chamberlain-Hunt Academy stemmed a decline common to military schools

THE NATCHEZ TRACE, HOME TO wild turkey, buzzards, and box turtles, cuts a path through thick forests past Indian mounds and caves as it winds its way from Nashville to Natchez. Near Nashville, bicyclists are common, but further south pedestrians and cyclists are rare. Last May, however, travelers along the Trace would have seen a dozen or so camouflage-wearing young men tracing a route taken by General U.S. Grant's army during the Civil War.

The teens are members of Chamberlain-Hunt Academy's (CHA) Order of Crusaders, and they earned the privilege of carrying 45-pound packs while hiking 51 miles in 90-degree heat by demonstrating leadership at the 175-year-old military school.

A decade ago such a hike wouldn't have happened. The military boarding school, located in historic Port Gibson, Miss., the town U.S. Grant said was "too beautiful to burn," had dwindled to 22 students who floundered in an institution that had lost its Christian mooring and become another white-flight school in the 1960s.

CHA wasn't the only military school going through hard times. The influence of the Vietnam War and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s made military schools seem irrelevant-and perhaps dangerous. Many lost confidence in their programs and tried to downplay their military roots in order to attract students. But despite such efforts to remake itself, CHA continued its decline. Unable to keep up maintenance on its large, turn-of-the-century facility, the school was on the verge of closing in 1998 when French Camp Academy bought it.

French Camp, a boarding school in northern Mississippi, invested several million dollars to restore the school's physical plant. More importantly, though, French Camp brought a renewed Christian vision to the school. CHA now has an explicitly Christian mission-"knowledge and wisdom in submission to God"-that it seeks to implement in all its programs. Although many military schools have a spiritual component, few lay out their beliefs so clearly: "We believe that God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, is the sole source of all knowledge.... We believe that through discipline we learn humility. In humility we learn our own weakness. And in weakness we learn reliance on the sovereignty of God."

The school has experienced rapid growth since the French Camp purchase. The dorms are full and the school is in the midst of developing 70 acres of the campus into a wilderness camp with ropes courses and other facilities.

Shane Blanton, executive director and principal of CHA, is a bow-tie wearing, professorial-looking man who doesn't look like he'd head up a military school for boys. He's been there for the past five years.

"We don't have bad kids," he says. "They're kids who need a lot of structure. They tend to be leaders." He describes his students as boys who have learned how to manipulate their parents. Many come from broken homes. Most have been kicked out of other schools and a few, especially in the first years after the French Camp takeover, had been in trouble with the law. Some have learning disabilities and most are on some kind of medication to control behavior when they first come. The school works closely with a doctor and has found that about 80 percent of the time structure successfully replaces medication.

The structure comes naturally in a military setting. Students wear uniforms and shoulder boards; they have ranks and drill. When they break the rules, they learn to pay the consequences.

The school's 121 boarding students, all male, live in dorms where house parents, called TAC officers, play a crucial role. At some military schools these fellows would be retired military officers, but at Chamberlain-Hunt they are often former youth directors at churches. It's their job to bring discipline and structure into the lives of these boys.

Although girls may attend CHA as day students, two years ago the school stopped accepting them into the boarding program. Maintaining discipline was a major headache with a co-ed facility. "'Struggle' was not a good word for it," Mr. Blanton said.

He adds that the first months of a new student's life at CHA "are interesting. They do a lot of hard work." That phrase doesn't just mean they work hard, although they do, but it means that they put in 30 minutes of physical training (often running or push-ups at 5:00 in the morning) for each demerit they earn-and they tend to earn lots of demerits. Although at first the discipline may focus on negative consequences for bad behavior, students also are rewarded for good behavior: Good grades can yield weekends at home.

Although parents might choose Chamberlain-Hunt because of their kids' behavior, the school has a rigorous academic program. Since not all students are ready for AP-level courses, CHA offers tutoring, one-on-one focus classes, and summer school to prepare incoming students for the challenge of the college prep curriculum. In addition to their academic subjects, students attend daily chapel and take Bible classes ranging from ethics and Christian character in 7th grade, to Old and New Testament surveys in 8th-10th, a Westminster Confession class in 11th, and a capstone class in biblical worldview in 12th.

On one Sunday morning, the close-cropped students in their short-sleeve white shirts and gray uniform pants file into the dining room for a meal of cold cereal, yogurt, toast, and juice. Soon they will march down Main Street under overhanging shade trees and past stately homes until they reach the Presbyterian Church for services.

Before they leave, a handful agree to talk about their reasons for being at CHA. Most describe themselves as needing structure and discipline. Most said they hated the school at first, and some even admitted to being the kind of kid who received physical training by the barrel. They described a period of adjustment to dorm life as they tested the limits and their TAC officers' resolve.

But gradually the kids do adjust, especially as they realize that this is a school they aren't going to get kicked out of. According to Mr. Blanton, "the outside change happens very quickly. I'm not sure the heart change happens that quickly."

The students laugh about the guys who are stubborn, describing their "constant PT and constant licks. They don't care." Sometimes they have to spend an hour doing PT at five in the morning, and sometimes their stubbornness results in PT for their friends as well. As one put it, "They get everyone mad at them."

A three-year veteran of the school said, "If I hadn't come here I would have never reached anything close to my potential.... I never had the structure to make myself do what I needed to do." He remembers being more confused than angry when he first came: "I didn't like it and made bad grades." He chose to come back after attending another school for about nine weeks, and now sees CHA as useful. "It puts you in the adult world that you have to be in and succeed in. They push you to the limit so you can reach your full potential."

A heavy-set young man, whose shoulder boards, cords, and medals signify his status as a senior and Sgt. Major, attended the school for six years, although he left twice to try out other places. He was 12 years old when he came. "Actually I wanted to come here. I wanted the structure and the discipline."

Leaving isn't uncommon. Parents see the external changes in their kids and think they are ready to come home. "If they take them out too quickly we often see them back," Mr. Blanton says.

Many kids who return come to appreciate the protected environment. "School takes a lot of temptations away.... If I was at home I'd be tempted with drinking and smoking. I'm not tempted by those things here."

The boys fill up their outside time with sports and physical activities like shooting and paintball. Their life is organized into military units where they learn leadership skills and assume responsibility for those under them. And if a leader misuses his authority? Jeff Martin, a one-year veteran, had a quick answer: "If he abuses his rank he knows he'll be in more trouble than he can imagine-possibly stripped of his rank."

Although most of the boys at CHA won't enter the military, the number of those interested in finding out about military life is increasing. Of the 18 students who graduated from CHA in 2003, about a third entered the military.

Although the number of military schools has declined greatly over the past century, many of the survivors (28 are listed on the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States website) are prospering. Only a handful offer a strong academic and Christian education. For Chamberlain-Hunt, the combination has brought the school back from the verge of death.