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Pointers From the Academy Columbus Middle School in Tustin participates in a spotlight program of West Point in New York.

April 01, 1993|SHEARLEAN DUKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TUSTIN — Resplendent in his military uniform, John Chu, 20, stood before about 300 eighth-grade pupils at Columbus Middle School and told them what it was like being a West Point cadet. When Chu, from Fullerton, finished, his young audience seemed convinced that West Point is a tough school.

"It sounds like a challenge," said 14-year-old Sabrina Sakaguchi. "I want a greater challenge. I don't want to go to a wimpy school."

Although Sakaguchi still isn't certain she will be applying to West Point, she admitted that she was glad to learn about the military academy. So was Sarah Both, 13, who says she learned that West Point isn't just for boys. "It's not all males, but females and all races," she said.

Isaac Choi, 13, says he learned that West Point isn't only for those interested in a military career. "It's about all kinds of stuff, courses, leadership. I have more insight now," he said.

And that's just the point, says Bonnie Sharp, the Columbus teacher responsible for putting together the West Point program. "I try to get across to them that there are many options in education," says Sharp, whose husband and son are both graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

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Because of Sharp's keen interest in West Point, Columbus Middle School was selected as one of only two middle schools in the country to be honored as a "Spotlight School" by the academy. Sharp and Columbus counselor Nate Hovland were invited to West Point to receive training in working with students to prepare them for the academy as a college choice.

Last year, West Point even sent a professor to Columbus Middle School social science classes for two days of teaching about the academy.

Sharp, a former Orange County teacher of the year, says her interest in West Point began 34 years ago when she married her husband, Tom. "I think he is the most wonderful man in the world," says Sharp, who credits the academy with helping her husband become the man he is today. About 14 years ago, she and her husband began holding meetings for all Orange County students who were interested in attending the academy. "In Orange County we've always had a lot of West Point candidates," she said. "So we started having them meet at our house."

Sharp's interest in the academy naturally began to spill over into the work she did at school. And she found a receptive audience in the kids at Columbus Middle School, says principal Bob Boies.

"Tustin has been a part of the military because of the El Toro base," he said. "A lot of our children have military involvement in their families. In Tustin we have a high percentage of students who do choose to go to West Point."

But Boies is quick to point out that the West Point Spotlight Program is not just a program to recruit kids for the academy.

"They realize that only one out of a 1,000 will actually be accepted to go to West Point," he says, "but it teaches middle school kids to think about their future. What they (the cadets) talk about applies to going to college in general. So it isn't just about going to West Point. It encourages them to think about their future. It is a tremendous motivator."

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Boies compares the West Point programs to motivational presentations by professional athletes who come to speak on campus.

"They provide a positive role model," he says. "The intent really is to encourage kids to think about their future, to see the relationship between what they do now and what they do later. We want our children to be leaders in the 21st Century, and this encourages them to do that."

Bonnie Sharp estimates that at least seven Columbus pupils have gone on to attend the military academy since she's become involved. Former Columbus pupil Matthew Blitch, 22, was graduated last year, and his mother, Carole, credits Sharp with inspiring her son.

"He decided in the seventh grade that he wanted to go," Blitch says. "We thought it was a dream and didn't really think that dream would come true. We never pushed it. We felt that was a decision that was going to have to be his. We encouraged him to apply to five other colleges. But he only wanted West Point so he did everything he could during high school so he would be a candidate."

Applicants must be nominated by their congressman, and for several years Tom Sharp has been a member of a local congressional interview committee that helps screen prospective candidates.

He is also a member of the West Point Society of Orange County, an organization that provides information to potential candidates. He suggests that students interested in the academy should start by talking to their school counselor. There is there no minimum GPA requirement.

A West Point cadetship is a full, four-year federal scholarship. Tuition, room, board, medical and dental care are paid by the government. And cadets receive an annual salary of more than $6,500 to pay for uniforms, books and living expenses. In turn, graduates must serve at least six years of active duty in the Army.

"There is no way this is going to appeal to everyone," Tom Sharp said. "And we don't try and sell them on West Point. It is hard work, and it is physically demanding. The ideal candidate would be student body president, team captain and also valedictorian."

Columbus eighth-grader Isaac Choi says the recent program on the academy has motivated him to work harder. "I always heard what you do now affects what you do later," he said, "and that makes me strive more doing my homework."

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