The clipped, authoritative sounds of military commands are not what you usually hear on a junior high school playing field. And the stiff Army boots and drab fatigues are a big change from the popular school wardrobe of neon T-shirts and trendy athletic shoes.
But at Monroe Junior High School in Inglewood, it's cool to be in the California Cadet Corps, an 81-year-old military program that became nearly moribund after the Vietnam War but is now springing to life again in inner-city schools.
The program was started at Monroe Junior High about four months ago as a means of introducing students to self-discipline, structure and an alternative to gang identity. Already, nearly one-third of the school's 800 students have joined the corps.
"It's still new, but we can see the success," said Lowell Winston, principal of Monroe, one of five Inglewood schools that have added the corps' military-science program to their curricula.
Begun in 1911 under the auspices of the state National Guard, the corps was organized to promote leadership and citizenship among young people. Today, it is a social program, said National Guard Capt. Robert A. Bradley, state corps director.
"It's kind of like a positive gang instead of a negative gang," Bradley said.
"Overall, the participation in Southern California has doubled in the last six years," Bradley said. Inner-city school districts, he reported, have "just jumped" on the corps as a way to provide positive structure for young people.
The corps is offered at 58 schools in California, 22 of which are in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Inglewood Unified is the only South Bay district offering the program.
The strict protocol of the military-science classes, which offer everything from map reading to first aid and calisthenics, is a startling contrast to the informal parlance of teen-agers.
"Maj. Cooks, sir," said a 13-year-old boy, sharply saluting Anthony Cooks, the cadet corps commander for the Inglewood Unified School District, also known as the 9th Brigade.
"As we go through the program, sir," the youngster said, "could you watch and evaluate my performance, sir? I seem to be having a lot of problems, sir."
Cooks, only 28 himself, assured the cadet that he would watch him closely. Later, in the military-science classroom, decorated with photographs of President Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Cooks decoded the exchange.
The boy has no father at home, Cooks said, so he goes out of his way to seek approval from older males. Cooks estimates that 60% of the Inglewood district's corps members come from fatherless homes. Bonding, though, is not limited to males.
Forty percent of the district's cadets are female, Cooks said, and the structure and identity the corps offers is as important to them as it is to boys.
Indeed, while a group of Monroe cadets practiced their drill, a 14-year-old girl, ill at ease and extremely shy, approached Cooks to say a few words. Had a visitor not been sitting with him, Cooks said after the girl left, she would have sat down and told him everything that had happened at her home over the last 24 hours.
"We're just getting her back to school," Cooks said. One of five children in a troubled family, she had dropped out. "We gave her cadets, and this structure will help get her through school," he said.
Cooks' primary thrust, he said, is to get the youngsters to focus on goals and objectives.
"A lot of students will tell you where they're going," he said, "but they don't know how to get there. And this program is going to help those students," he said, stressing that he has made academic success a rule of corps membership by requiring that students maintain a C average to participate.
The second important component of the corps, Cooks said, is community service. On weekends, for example, he has been taking cadets into downtown Los Angeles to work in the missions that provide food to the homeless.
Educators acknowledge that there is a tendency to regard the corps as a big gang. However, they stressed that the corps provides inner-city youths with something all youngsters yearn for in adolescence: identity.
"It gives them a group to join," said Inglewood school board member Lois Hill Hale.
Only a small group of youngsters can be on the football or basketball teams, Hale and others pointed out, and only a small group of students can forge an identity through academic success.
The corps "provides camaraderie," Hale said, "acceptance among their peers."
Identifying with their fellow cadets, she said, will help them resist the pressure to join a neighborhood gang or to take drugs. "It gives our children the coping skills to say no," Hale explained.
"It's strengthened our academic program because students are more focused now," Principal Winston added. "And it has also strengthened our attendance. Now, it's, 'I want to come to school because I can identify goals.' Goals and purpose. . . . It's amazing. That's what the program gives to them."