Interview with Fishburne Military School Superintendent

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On Friday, July 10, 2017, Militaryschooler contributor Andrew Erickson interviewed Captain Mark Black USN Ret., Superintendent of Fishburne Military School. The following is a transcript of the interview:

Welcome to the Militaryschooler Podcast, presented by Militaryschooler.com. At Militaryschooler you can read articles, reviews, news, watch cadet interviews and you can listen to more podcasts just like this one. You can also search schools and learn more about these unique boarding schools.

Andrew Erickson: This is Andrew Erickson. You are listening to (reading) the Militaryschooler podcast. This episode is the second in our Head of Schools Series, where we interview the Heads of many of these fine schools. Today we are starting a little unconventionally with a story.

Mark Black: When I first got to my first squadron, me and a couple other guys that were brand new to the airwing, we were not all in the same squadron - we flew different aircraft but we knew each other - as we were sitting in the what we would call the dirty shirt on the ship (it's where the aviators ate), because we were not allowed to go down into the ship's mess because we were always wearing flight suits and we were dirty and stinky and all that kind of stuff. As we are sitting there, CAG, the Carrier Air Group Commander, who is essentially the boss of our boss, we were in squadrons so our Co's, our commanding officers, worked for the CAG. He was actually a very polished individual, but he was a legendary F-4 Phantom guy in Vietnam. Probably over 300 missions.

FMS - Diploma

He was one of those guys who did not say much, but when he said something, you wanted to hear what he had to say. He walked up to our table and said can I sit down with you gentlemen? We were all LTJG's [a lower officer rank] and he was a full Captain. He sat down and we were all just looking at him like who is going to speak and say something first. Finally he says y'all are probably wondering why I am sitting down here. And we go, "Yes sir, why would you sit down with us?" He replied that he recognized all four (there were four or five, I can't remember), but all of you are new to the air wing. I want to make sure that you understand what I expect from people who join my air wing.

The first thing you need to understand is that you are professional assassins. We pay you to kill people and blow things up on command, the first time, every time, on time. For that reason you need to know your business, be professional, be experts and realize that the people that you are fighting against are going to be attempting to do the same thing so you must be better than they are. So know your job, be the expert and work with precision.

Secondly, nobody likes paperwork, but it is a necessary evil. If I assign you to do something, I expect you to do your due diligence and provide me a quality product on time that I can utilize to make decisions.

"That does not mean that you order them, it means that you will lead them."

Finally, I can say that this is the most important piece that really had an impact on me, he goes finally, " If you are put in charge of people, I expect you to be in charge of them. That does not mean that you order them, it means that you will lead them. Leading them means that you take care of their needs as they fulfill our mission. That means that you rest after they rest, you eat after they eat and you sleep after they sleep. One of the most important things that you will recognize is if you take care of them, they will overwhelm you with what they will do for you." That kinda permeated my career in the Navy. I received that brief or that soliloquy in 1989 and I said that this is how I am going to pattern myself. When you look into Scripture, that's they way that Christ led. He was a servant leader and I believe wholeheartedly that is the best model, both from my personal life and my observations. So that's what I want to instill here at Fishburne Military School.

AE: Today we are excited to have Captain Mark Black, he is the 12th Superintendent of Fishburne Military School. Fishburne was founded in 1879 in Waynesboro, Virginia, serving grades 7 - 12. Captain Black is a retired Naval Aviator who graduated from a great military college. Sir, we are really excited to have you on the podcast.

MB: Well Andrew, thank you very much. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be speaking to you today about Fishburne Military School.

AE: So let's set the location a little bit. You were telling me that this is a beautiful day up there in the Shenandoah Valley. What is going on on campus?

FMS - Raiders

MB: Well, right now on campus, we are in Waynesboro, Virginia, which is a town of about 20,000 people, in the Shenandoah Valley. We have Summer School going on, in which the students are either remediating a class if they need to, or in many cases students are getting ahead for their schedule because they might want to be taking a certain class their senior or junior year and to do that they have to take a preliminary class. There are some students here who are just taking some of our enrichment classes. They are doing outdoor adventure; of course JROTC is in full swing. Several people are coming here in the fall and they have never done JROTC. They want to be able to compete for some of the leadership positions, which require advancement in the LET (Leadership Education Training) curriculum. There is a wide array of people and intentions with Summer School. It is also a full time occupation because it is a boarding school mentality during the summer session.

AE: With these Summer School cadets that you have on campus, are they mostly cadets from the school year, or are they new to the Fishburne world?

MB: This changes with time. We have had years in which the summer population has predominantly been Fishburne cadets. This year we have a relatively meager population of what we refer to as "Old Men from Fishburne." The vast majority of our students, or cadets, in our summer session are people who have never attended Fishburne Military School before.

AE: Let's talk a little about your background and how you found Fishburne.

FMS - Alumni

MB: I have several long stories but will make this as brief as possible. I was a career naval aviator for thirty years. Most of my career was operational. I was flying orders for 24-25 of the years, but during one stint I did have a staff job and it allowed me to have some free time. During that timeframe I coached a high school lacrosse program in the area in which I resided. The Lord blessed me tremendously throughout my career with command opportunities of a fighter squadron, a fighter wing, an entire Naval contingent in Afghanistan, and eventually the NROTC unit at the University of Virginia, but I would say that this volunteer high school lacrosse coach position, in which I lost money, because of what you do as a volunteer, was arguably the most rewarding position that I ever had.

You really have the sensation that you are making a difference in young men's lives. I coached about 90 - 100 over the course of 4 years and I can say with all certainty, for about 20 of them, moving them in the right direction or in many cases a different positive direction for their lives, is quite intoxicating. This lead me to believe that this is something that I wanted to do after retirement from the Navy.

As far as how I ended up at Fishburne, as I mentioned, I finished up as the ROTC Commander for the University of Virginia. The University of Virginia is in Charlottesville, which is about a 30 minute transit from Waynesboro. Right before I retired, one of the ladies who is a DOD (Department of Defense) civilian in the Army ROTC Program, which we had a good working relationship with, she is from Waynesboro and is affiliated with Fishburne. She knows a few people here. She mentioned to me that Fishburne is in need of a Superintendent and it is something that you need to look into. I said that since I am going to have the opportunity to look for work, I would put in an application. Two months later they called me.

Now I will say that the funny aspect of a naval aviator coming to interview for the Superintendent position at Fishburne Military School (FMS) is that anybody who is remotely familiar with Fishburne will recognize that Fishburne has a very steeped history with the United States Army; in fact our JROTC program actually evolved from an infantry school that was established here during World War I. Therefore when I found out about the steeped history associated with the Army at Fishburne I felt that the probability that they would select a naval aviator was very remote. Therefore, my primary interest was that this would be a good practice, since they are not going to hire a Navy guy.

Lo and behold I showed up for the interview and they promptly had all of the service flags displayed except one, the United States Navy. So my wife and I kind of chuckled about that. There was no pressure during the interview, it evidently went well and they called me up on about two weeks to offer me the position. They told me that I needed to come here so that they could officially announce me. Needless to say, the first thing my wife and I did as we drove back onto the post, for the introduction ceremony, was to see the display of flags and sure enough there was a brand new Navy flag there. So that's how I ended up coming to Fishburne, I realized the were serious about it.

AE: Let's talk a little about Fishburne. What kind of students attend your school and what kind of students is your school built for?

MB: Fishburne is like any other private boarding school in this respect. There is a significant array of the type of students we have. We have individuals here who are scholastically and physically at the top of their game. We will always have a number of cadets that are competing to go to one of the different service academies or some top tier university. Though at the same time, we have students who are not at the higher echelon of scholastic ability or even physical ability. That naturally presents a challenge. One of the things that we have found is that putting that contingent of people in a relatively small classroom setting, I think that one of our greatest strengths is that Fishburne is relatively small.

FMS - Drill Team

The maximum that the Corps can be is 200. This leaves no place to hide, people are going to be instructable in that they are going to be accessible. If a student indicates that they need help, the faculty and staff are going to recognize that and provide the modicum of attention necessary to move forward. I think that is one of the more attractive aspects of the school. What that does is that it helps those individuals that are competing for those very competitive positions, whether it be one of the service academies or a school like the University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, and other places up and down the eastern seaboard. Which is predominantly where our students come from, east of the Mississippi.

It effectively brings the folks that are not at that level up and has them achieve a level of performance, both in the classroom and on the playing field, that surpasses what they could normally achieve if left to their own devices at a bigger school or a bigger public school.

AE: You mentioned your JROTC program, I have spoken with the head of it, and he is very involved in the students lives. He mentioned that one of his favorite things was the level of involvement that he could have with each one of his cadets. That is a very distinctive program and I do not know if many people know what Junior ROTC is. Can you talk about it a little bit?

MB: The JROTC program is based off of the normal ROTC program that exists at universities throughout the United States. ROTC stands for Reserve Officers Training Corps. The purpose of ROTC, in college, is to bring young men and women into the United States military. Whether it be in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Air Force. Each one of the services has their own distinctive ROTC variety. The NROTC is Naval, not Navy, and it feeds both the Navy and the Marine Corps as they are both under the Department of the Navy.

FMS - Raiders

People have an apprehension, particularly when we start talking about secondary students. They think that we are talking about getting people ready to go into the military; is that what JROTC is? This is not the case. JROTC will feed people into ROTC if in fact that is their desire. But the whole premise of JROTC, which is predominantly in public schools, is that it is a citizenship program to ensure that our young people understand, our young citizens of the United States, how they can contribute to making and keeping this great country great. That is the premise of the program. They go through a very thorough curriculum.

You are right, Colonel Hunt, Master Sergeant Morton and previously First Sergeant Hensley, all of those individuals are very much engaged with the daily life of each and every one of their cadets. They will do classroom work instructing both character development, taking people through the different values associated with the United States Military, but also explaining the things that students need to know as a citizen of the United States and what they need to do to continue this country in the direction that we have previously been and keep us aspiring for what some refer to as American Exceptionalism.

"What is important is how does the team perform."

Now it is also very keenly focused on developing individuals as leaders. To make sure that they understand what they can do to bring people around them to the achievement of a collective goal. Which is more important than the individual, what is important is how does the team perform. How does the Corps, in this case, perform? That is a great emphasis that we have, in fact it is something that really distinguishes the school as I speak to alumni. That really surprised me because although I am speaking with great admiration for what our JROTC program does, and the military program in general does at FMS, the thing that I have seen firsthand, in terms of the greatest value of our military structure, is not so much the number of great military leaders we have produced. About 10% of the Fishburne graduates over the course of the school's history have gone to the military. Now, that number has fluctuated over the years, particularly in the World War II years and maybe to a lesser extend World War I. Still, 10% is a good number. The vast majority of our people do not go into the military.

What that instruction has provided them is a great sense of awareness of how leading those around them, their contemporaries, which helps them move up in the organization, in terms of their civilian employment. I have been amazed at the number of Fishburne graduates that have gone on to own their own businesses. Whether it be law firms, some type of manufacturing, or whether it be some type of service industry that did not even require a college degree. One of the individuals that I have seen that graduated in the 50's and 60's, one in particular that went into plumbing, eventually developed a system for sewers in which he was one of the only guys in the country that could do it. When I met him, he was retired in the Villages in Florida, living a very grand life and his biggest concern was which day of the week he was going to go deep sea fishing on a regular basis.

AE: You talked about the misconception that military schools are making soldiers, which is very far from the actual case. It's not Hollywood. Can you talk about other misconceptions that people have about your school and your students?

MB: I think the biggest misconception of military schools, in general, is that they are places for wayward souls and that everyone here is on some type of voucher program from some local juvenile detention facility and that we are remediating them. This could not be farther from the truth. I am not going to say that we have individuals that have no disciplinary problems previously, but I can tell you that they are very much the minority. In fact, even coming here, I anticipated that we would have a number of kids that had been kicked out of schools. I do not have a very steep background in private schools but in talking to people that have been at predominantly Christian schools, that was the case. What has really surprised me is that this was not the case here. I can not discern of any of our individuals who have actually been removed from a public or another private school.

FMS - Military Ball

That stigma that exists on military schools probably emanates from history. I can't speak for this in terms of Fishburne specifically. After the Vietnam War, military schools fell out of favor, and in many cases the student who I described previously, someone who had been in trouble, was essentially given an edict that he would go to military school. This kept many military schools in business during that time frame. Many of them went out of business. In just a 35 mile radius of where we are in Waynesboro, there were one time three military schools. Fishburne being one of them, and the smallest. Augusta Military Academy and Stanton Military Academy, both of which were much larger than FMS and both of those eventually went out of business during the timeframe that I am describing.

I would tell you in the last 25 years, military schools in general, Fishburne specifically, have continually upgraded the individuals that are coming here and are approaching a point now where the folks who come here, generally have a reason in that they have some aspirations of going to a military academy or they just realize that they need to go to a school in which they can be more focused, and that they need the structure. One of the encouraging things for me right now, in the new students that we have coming for summer session and potentially in the fall session, I have been really encouraged by the number of young men that I have spoken to in that process. These are young guys that are much more mature than I was at their age, 8th - 9th and to a lesser extent 10th graders that have just said that they are sick of being in a classroom in a public school where more than half of the class is not really focused or has aspirations of achieving and that they want to be around a bunch of guys where there is a competition to see who is the best. I would tell you that this is more indicative of the students who are not just coming to Fishburne but in many cases going to any military school in the United States today.

FMS - Graduation

AE: As the Head of a School, how do you determine the health of a school?

MB: I think there are several aspects of making that determination. The most important is aspect of what you just said, is that we are a school. There is going to have to be some element, in probably the greatest prominence, regarding academic performance. We have to demonstrate that we are getting people into the colleges, into the programs that they want to attend. Let's face it, we are a private school. Parents have to pay tuition. We need to be worth the effort to attend here, that gets our students to where they want to be in the future. Academics is vitally important.

Since we are a military school, another aspect that I think really distinguishes us from not just public schools, but also other private or boarding schools, is the military overlay of our educational system. Which teaches not just leadership, which is a vital component that people need to possess if they are going to advance in the future, but it also teaches them time management. When I was at the University of Virginia, it was amazing to me how many of these very intelligent young people, much more intelligent than I am, had difficulty transitioning from where mom and dad are taking care of them to where nobody is taking care of them. They have to have the self discipline to get up on time and get to that class or to go see that professor, whichever the case may be. So that they can go on to get the grades necessary to eventually graduate from a very prestigious University. What we see with out cadets is that they have a much more astute awareness of that. That is one of the things that you have to evaluate, academics, the military apparatus in terms of is it producing the modicum of performance both in organization and in leadership that we want.

Finally, you ultimately have to look at the financials associated with the school to determine are we healthy and are we viable for the future, because that is something that anybody that is contemplating going into this, they need to make sure the school is going to be around. One of the things that we are very proud of here at FMS is being the oldest military school in Virginia. We have a track record of making that happen since 1879.

AE: Now you have just finished your first school year, you said that you were 10 months in, what accomplishments are you most proud of from this first year?

MB: I think that being new to this environment, the thing that I am personally most proud of is that I did not interfere with the school and come in and insinuate that I had all the answers. The one thing that I came away with from my first year is, the only thing that I am sure of that I know, is that I do not know the answers to all of the questions that I am confronted with on a daily basis. Luckily I have a tremendous faculty and staff that I rely on to provide me the information to make value added decisions.

FMS - Inauguration

As far as the performance of the Corps, I will tell you they did outstanding in that for the first time, actually the second time, I have to correct myself, FMS participated in an Inaugural Parade. Which was a great endeavor, the cadets really were exposed to something that was very special, it was historic.

The Corps performed very well and one of the things that I am proud of this year is, although we did not put somebody into a Service Academy, we do have two of our cadets still on waiting lists, waiting to see if they got into either West Point or Annapolis. We did have eight cadets receive ROTC scholarships to some pretty prestigious universities. Off the top of my head, they were Ohio State, Ohio University, we have somebody going to Arizona State, the University of Colorado. We also have two going to the Virginia Military Institute, which is my alma mater. As you can see it is a pretty wide array. This is a banner performance if you consider that based off the number of students that we had graduate this year, that's 20% of our student body received a scholarship to go to college.

This goes back to my point on the health of a school. With an academic performance in which 20% of of the people who attended this school are now going to have their college paid for, other than their room and board, I think this is indicative of a school that is succeeding in their realm.

FMS - Baseball

The other piece that the Corps did very well, we were challenged from an athletic perspective in that we are a small school. Most of the schools that we compete with are at least twice our size. Even with that said, we had two teams that achieved state championships. One of which was our rifle team, which is one of the few in the country. They won their third state championship in a row. Our wrestling team was named the state champion in independent schools of the state of Virginia. For a school our size to produce that many good wrestlers is really indicative of a great program, and coach Waters is just a tremendous coach. He has really built the program well and hopefully we continue to maintain that success.

Also a couple other sports that did well, but did not rise to a state championship, they competed very well at the conference level, was our baseball team who beat several of the top 5 teams in the state. Our track team did exceptionally well at the conference level. Our basketball team did very well at the conference level.

FMS - Basketball

One of the other pieces - we talked about JROTC - we have a number of activities that really constitute sporting programs affiliated with the JROTC Program. One of which is Regulation, which is a platoon level drill team. We have an exhibition armed drill team, which is at the squad level, we refer to those individuals as out Hudgins Rifles.

Finally, we have a group of individuals that go under the moniker of Raiders. They compete in Raider competitions, which is predicated on the best Ranger competitions of the United States Army. One of the things that we are proud of those individuals is in our district, they do not compete at the national level, they compete within district levels. Our district is seven states, which really constitutes the mid-atlantic region. It is something to the magnitude of 340 high schools, both public and private. You can imagine how many students there are. Every year they have what they refer to as the Best of the Best competition and little Fishburne Military School qualified as one of the top 20 teams in the district. Eventually finishing in 8th place, which initially you think just 8th place, but when you consider all the schools, all twenty of the other schools in the competition with Fishburne, you are looking at student bodies of over 1,000. We have about 150 and are competing toe to toe with those individuals. All in all you look at the accomplishments of FMS during the academic year of 2017, it was quite an impressive array of accomplishments.

AE: So as the new head of a school, let's talk about your plans moving forward. Where is the school going to be 10 years from now?

MB: I will tell you 10 years is a long time away. My experience on active duty military is that, I do not know if I will get the acronym correct, but there is something called the FYDP (Five Year Development Plan) and that is five years. I would tell you that five years is about as far out as I can see realistically.

I think there is a lot of interesting things for education. I have a weakness in that I am new to secondary education. But I also have a strength in that I am new to secondary education and I am not necessarily encumbered with the in-the-box type thinking. One of the things that I see, I want to see what is out there that we can again justify the cost of tuition of attending FMS. One of the interesting things is that we are a college prepatory school and we are dedicated to that, but one of the things that concerns me is that our society in today's day and age, is the fact that a young man or a young woman can go to college and get their degree, do exceptionally well, but is there a job out there to support them and are they going to have a significant amount of debt when they graduate? That is a concerning situation. It's almost a double punch when someone graduates and they do not have a job that they can walk right into and how are they going to pay off the immense amount of debt.

One of the things that I want to investigate is there any way that we at FMS can look at those kids that might not be interested in going to college? I mean they want to achieve in the classroom, but for whatever reason they do not want to or maybe cannot even afford to go to college. The biggest weakness in our society right now is that we do not have enough skilled labor. One of the things that we are investigating is, is there an opportunity for us to have some high powered academics in core principals but also be able to have somebody walk out of FMS with an apprenticeship or some time of certification in a skill that they could walk right into some type of employment situation in which they are making a very reasonable amount of money and they have absolutely no debt.

FMS - Raiders

I have done some reading recently, along with a number of people here as we have discussed it. There are some recommendations out there that say this is a better way of doing the traditional four years worth of college and moving on into a career. Just due to what the job market dictates and what is available out there vs the amount of debt that is accumulated as you are going to through school.

The other thing, going back to the traditional military model, is that in my personal beliefs that I am a Christian and I truly believe that if you look at leadership, one of the greatest leaders that ever existed, and we talked about him today, is Jesus Christ. He really exemplified a servant leader. That is one of the things that we really want to concentrate on at FMS. We are trying to define that attitude in which yes you are in charge and you are responsible and you are accountable, but my objective is to bring you along and improve you so that we achieve things, you get better, and we all succeed in the end. I think that is the model that I want to exemplify here at FMS and really have our young men depart Fishburne with a clear understanding that leadership is a responsibility and a privilege. It is vitally important for individuals that are blessed with leadership positions to understand that they are not entitled to other people serving them. It is vitally important for the organization for them to serve those who are beneath them.

AE: I would like to talk about some recent graduates of Fishburne and the successes they are having, having learned about leadership and servant leadership and how they have moved on to the next step in their lives.

MB: When you say recent, you realize that I am pretty old, I am realizing that. I do not know if I accept that or not. But a recent graduate might be somebody 20 years ago, are you talking about within 10 years, 5 years? What timeframe are you looking for?

AE: Lets do 10 years or less.

MB: I am going to go to some of the people that I am familiar with. We currently have 6 individuals that are at one of the service academies. I believe that we have someone at the Naval Academy, several at West Point, we have one at the Coast Guard Academy, one at the Merchant Marine Academy. The only service academy we do not have somebody at is, I do not believe we have anyone at the Air Force Academy. We have a number of students at Virginia Military Institute, the Citadel in South Carolina, and at Norwich University in Vermont. All of which are Senior Military Colleges. We also have a number of individuals that are at Virginia Tech. Some of which are in the Corps of Cadets and some of which who are just students there. Virginia Tech is another Senior Military College. So we are hitting that mark.

Just this year we have had a number of individuals accepted at the University of Southern California, University of California at Los Angeles - better known as UCLA. As I mentioned Arizona State, the University of Colorado, Ohio State, University of Ohio and a number of universities in Virginia. Some of the more preeminent schools in the United States. I think one of the things that is interesting about the individuals who have gone on, while I was at the University of Virginia, my first contact with a Fishburne graduate was a student that was part of the Army ROTC program, and it just so happened that he was the son of a friend of mine. He informed me that he was a Fishburne Graduate. He has now graduated from the University of Virginia and is serving in the United States Army as an intelligence officer.

We have another individual from the University of Virginia that I recently met, in fact we had him speak at our Honor Society Induction ceremony in the fall of 2016. He is a graduate of Fishburne, has graduated from the University of Virginia, and now he is functioning up in New York City with one of the Hedge Funds, probably making more money than I could accumulate in a long period of time. He was a 2008 graduate of Fishburne and 2012 graduate of the University of Virginia.

So that kind gives you a little bit of the flavor and there are several other stories similar to that of people that have gone on and they are currently either in the military or pursuing some professional license. Whether it be a doctor, a lawyer, for whatever reason it seems like Fishburne has a propensity to either produce lawyers or construction company owners. That is more of the graduates that I have met from the 60's, 70's & 80's. I do not know what the connections between those two are, but as I meet our alumni throughout the country, it seems like there is a plethora of them.

That gives you a flavor for where they are at and it's again a great privilege to have the opportunity and the responsibility to make sure that we can continue that tradition in terms of the achievement of our graduates.

AE: Sir, I appreciate you giving us this time to talk about your wonderful school. It has certainly been an honor to talk to you about this. I know you are a busy gentleman.

MB: Believe me, the pleasure is all mine

"My grandmother had great wisdom and she told me, you know there is two ways of learning in life. There are those who learn through experience and those who learn through judgement. You must realize that experience is gained by practicing poor judgement. My goal as a leader, previously at the University of Virginia and now at Fishburne Military School, I have lots of experience because I have made lots of mistakes. My objective is to upload my experience in each one of these young men's brain housing group, so that they have a higher threshold of judgement and don't make the same experiences that I made."

Fishburne Military School Logo
Captain Mark Black, US Navy (Ret.), Fishburne Military School Superintendent Fishburne Military School, Waynesboro, VA

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