Today MyThinks continues their profile of New Zealand charter schools as they come towards the end of the second year of operation. Today we are in South Auckland at the Rearguard Academy of Military and Ballistic Operations – a charter school committed to the stripping down and building back up of some of the toughest youth.
My car pulls up to the checkpoint. A smartly dressed and rather pimply year 11 student greets me with a salute and a demand to see my papers. I show him my identification papers. He looks at it for a few moments before motioning to a comrade in the nearby kiosk to remove the barriers. They team up to do so and I drive on.
As I slowly make my way up the drive toward the main barracks, on the patch of grass next to the drive I see one of the younger students being hazed by a platoon of much older boys. I think to myself, hair grows back but I’m not too sure about thumbs.
I park my car and get out. I’m greeted by the turgid salute of a young cadet who clearly believes himself to be far more smartly dressed than I could ever hope to be. Following the salute he eyes me with disdain before marching me briskly around the back of the admin block.
When we arrive I am greeted by the unusual sight of several nine-year-olds digging a large hole in the ground. They are using plastic spoons. A slightly rotund staff sergeant is shouting mercilessly at them.
“YOU WILL HAVE THESE LATRINES COMPLETED BY OH-SIX-HUNDRED TOMORROW MORNING WHEN THEY WILL BE COMMISSIONED BY MYSELF AND THE COMMANDANT!!! IS THAT CLEAR!!???!?!”
Some exhausted murmurings drift from the hole. The sergeant responds.
“I SAID, IS THAT CLEAR??!!?”
“Sir, yes sir!” they retort in unison. The staff sergeant turns to me.
“You must be the journalist,” he begins, “I’m Staff Sergeant Bill Williams.”
He extends a hand and we shake. I just can’t help myself. I ask if those children are old enough to be doing such demanding work.
“Of course,” he replies in a much more soothing tone, “great military powers around the world were all built around high-quality latrine systems. Hitler lost World War Two because the German army didn’t have the technology to dig into the frozen Russian mud. No latrines made for very unhappy and clogged up solders.”
Having studied some military history at university I wasn’t sure that substandard latrines were the main reasons the Germans lost the war, but I let it rest. Sgt Williams begins his tour of the base.
As we travel around the barracks and other buildings I can’t help but notice the number of young people lying exhausted in the mud while outraged adults thunder instructions or let them know in no uncertain terms how worthless they are to society.
“How do you measure the learning outcomes for your students?” I ask Sgt. Williams.
“Easy,” replies Sgt Williams, “each student who comes through those front gates is disrobed, de-loused and fully shaved. We then spend six to eight weeks totally destroying them. Any soldier who comes out of the process alive is considered to have successfully graduated. They are given a little medal with a green ribbon.”
“And where do they go when they leave the academy?”
“Generally they return to some kind of juvenile detention facility,” he replies, “We get some of the most troubled youths from across the north of the North Island. What we do is give them a huge range of military skills in their time here. It’s scary to think criminals with those sorts of highly refined skills could be roaming around our communities.”
We conclude our tour back at my car. What I have seen has really impressed me. Young people following instructions, authentic learning experiences, and extreme military degradation – all the elements one needs for a successful charter school.
MyThinks returns tomorrow with a tour around Serco’s brand-new Bay of Plenty facility.