Interview with Oak Ridge Military Academy President

ORMA President

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On Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, Militaryschooler contributor Wilson Franklin interviewed John Haynes, President of Oak Ridge Military Academy. The following is a transcript of the interview:

Welcome to the Military School Podcast, where we bring you inside the military boarding schools of the United States. Today, a military school alumnus, Wilson Franklin, interviews the new president of ORMA, a co-ed military boarding school in Oak Ridge, North Carolina. At MilitarySchooler.com, you can explore the military schools using our custom search and sorting tools; you can check out articles on ADHD, athletics, character development, and our latest on unique traditions. You can also download the Ultimate Guide to Military Schools.

Wilson Franklin: This morning, we are privileged to have Mr. John Haynes, president of Oak Ridge Military Academy, join us by phone for our Head of School series. Let's get right to the questions.

Can you tell us a bit about Oak Ridge?

John Haynes: Oak Ridge Military Academy has been around since 1852, so we're the second oldest military high school in the United States. We have changed a lot over the years from originally being a school just for local students here to being a school that has students from all over the United States as well as the world. We have a real strong international influence here.

A lot of things have changed, and a lot of things have stayed the same. In fact, in some ways we have returned to our roots. One thing that makes us really distinctive right now is the fact that we are very individualized with small classes, and we are still college prep, but with the military distinctive as well. While we went through history where we were a lot larger, our emphasis right now - and what we are really offering to parents - is a small school with small class sizes and very individualized attention. And that's been a real positive for the students that are here, who are either looking for an individualized curriculum offerings or who are just looking for smaller classes with teachers who are able to really get to know them well and give them the personalized attention they are looking for.

WF: Can you tell us about the student who attend your school?

"It's really difficult to say what type of student...other than it's a student who wants to have the structure of a military academy, the character development and sense of citizenship and history that we have here, and a student who wants to be able to develop their leadership in a way that they may not be able to do in a lot of other schools."

JH: The type of student who attends Oak Ridge is really difficult to describe because we have such a diverse group of students. We have, as I mentioned earlier, students from all over the world and all over the United States. So, we're very diverse in that regard. We are also a co-ed military school, as opposed to being all-male. About 25% of our students right now are females. Because we have small class sizes and because we are individualized, we are able to meet the needs of a lot of different students. We are college prep, but, what that means as far as the types of colleges and type of careers our students are looking for is very diverse. So, it's really difficult to say what type of student...other than it's a student who wants to have the structure of a military academy, the character development and sense of citizenship and history that we have here, and a student who wants to be able to develop their leadership in a way that they may not be able to do in a lot of other schools.

WF: What type of student is ORMA best for?

JH: Again, I think that is very difficult to describe, because we are a great school for so many different types of students. We really are able to meet the needs of a wide variety of types of students. While we are a college preparatory school, the type of school and the type of career our students are looking for is varied. The challenge for us is to be able to offer the courses and to offer the opportunities that meet their individual needs. The thing that they often have in common, though, as far as describing that student, is a student who wants to learn how to influence the world around them through leadership, through academics, through community service. If I were to describe that one student, it would be that student who is interested in learning and growing in a very individualized manner.

WF: What are some misconceptions about Oak Ridge?

JH: Well I'd say there's really two misconceptions. I'm relatively new to the military academy world. However, every Headmaster, or President, or Commandant that I've spoken to...we've joked about the same two misconceptions. One is that we're a school for troubled students. I know, as you guys have worked with military academies at MilitarySchooler, I know that you've heard that - and it's a little frustrating, because while we certainly help out students who need a little extra guidance, we are not a reform school. A vast majority of our students have not had any kind of trouble, so that's one misconception.

The other misconception is that our students come here in order to prepare for a military career. And the fact of the matter is, we usually have one or two students per year who graduate and are interested in going into the military. The rest are looking at more of a traditional four year college or university setting.

WF: After graduation, how many of your students go on to attend college and how many join the military?

JH: As I was saying, probably one or two a year - historically, that percentage that has gone on to the military has been higher. A couple, maybe three a year at most would go on to the military...so that would be about 8-10%. As far as college is concerned, 100% of our students are accepted each year to colleges and universities. That's not to say they all end up going or even finish, but it's a very high percentage that go on to colleges and universities.

WF: What innovative and unique classes and programs does Oak Ridge offer?

JH: As I mentioned earlier, one of our unique qualities here is the ability to provide individualized curriculum and individualized instruction. We really strive to meet the needs of the students based on where they are academically, where they want to get to academically, what they want to do following high school. One of the things that we're doing that's rather unique is the way in which we are delivering online courses and dual enrollment courses with local universities or community colleges. What I mean by that is, if we have a couple students who are taking some online courses in some advanced or very unique science classes, for instance, what we strive to do is to put them in a class with a science teacher for that course. So they're not just off in a corner somewhere in the library doing an online course by themselves, but they actually have a mentor and a guide in one of our teachers in that field in the classroom with them. That allows us to offer a wide variety of classes - unique classes - but it's not independent study in the traditional sense. It's guided and teachers are there with experience in that field often who are able to work with them, help them stay organized, stay on top of everything and work their way through that course with the support that we think they need.

WF: WF- As a school president, how do you determine the health of a school?

JH: The manner in which I determine the health of a school may be a little different than a lot of other folks. Often when I ask that question, or when I talk to other folks, I hear them talk about the budget or the number of students enrolled. In my mind, the health of a school is determined by primarily two areas - relationship and culture. That's not to say budget issues, curriculum issues..that's not to say those things aren't important - but those fluctuate from year to year and those change a lot. The things that take a long time to develop and I believe are really crucial to the long-term success of a school -- and the short-term for that matter -- are the relationships that students and staff are able to establish. I think that's even more critical when you're talking about a boarding school. It's not like when a student has a bad day they go home to their parents and they get the support they need there. They have a bad day, they go to the dorm. If you don't have the relationship with the dorm parents and the TAC officers and the Commandant, those in the cadet life area, or a coach, that can make for a really difficult time for our cadets. Those strong relationship and building those strong relationships, I believe, is what leads to that healthy strong culture. That culture, of course, leads back to being able to provide those strong relationships. There are really two sides to the same coin. But I believe those are absolutely the most important determinants of a healthy school.

WF: How do you attract and retain the best faculty and staff?

JH: A lot of that gets back to that relationship and culture. Like a lot of private schools, it is difficult sometimes to keep up in the race as far as salaries are concerned, and compensation packages. The staff and faculty that we're looking for here at Oak Ridge Military Academy are the ones who are interested in that relationship, who are interested in being at a school with a culture that is student-centered and allows them to develop and deliver curriculums and programs in a way that is student-focused and not beholden to certain state guidelines. We have that freedom to meet the needs of individual students. It's not hard to go to a lot of schools and find a lot of teachers who are frustrated because they're not able to develop that relationship, they're not able to function in a culture that is student-centered. Attracting them is relatively easy [because] there are a lot of teachers who are looking for that type of opportunity to teach students.

WF: Looking forward, what are your plans for Oak Ridge Military Academy?

JH: Well as far as our plans for Oak Ridge, the idea is to continue to develop the individualized, unique, educational opportunities that we have here. We feel that we're just scratching the surface even though we offer a lot of unique courses and we some unique delivery. We feel that we have a ways to go as far as being able to offer a few more types of courses. A lot of that is just getting into the nuts and bolts of scheduling, and maybe doing some classes every two years instead of worrying about whether or not we have enough cadets for one year. Just coming up with some creative opportunities. One in particular that we're working on is getting in touch with some of the local businessmen and some of the local people in the community who are interested in working with us on some curriculum and then getting together with our cadets and families to find out what kind of needs are there in the next few years and just really making sure that we're meeting the needs of those families and are continuing to be innovative in the courses that we offer.

WF: I know it's your first year as president at Oak Ridge, but so far what accomplishments are you most proud of?

JH: I'll be honest with you, that's a little difficult for me [to answer]. I just finished my first year here at Oak Ridge, and so I feel that I've been able to learn a lot from being here. I've had the chance to get to know the cadets, the families, and alumni. I've really enjoyed that and I've learned a lot. We are just now at the point where we are creating a five-to-eight year goals and working on our strategic thinking. I've got a ways to go before I can say what I'm most proud of during my time here.

But, as an institution, and what I've come to really appreciate about the school - I can certainly speak to that, and I would say I'd have to get back to that relationship piece. Being relatively new to the military boarding school, one thing that struck me right off the bat was how personable, how personal, how close the relationships are here. I guess like a lot of people I had the misconception that it would be a little more cold because of the military training and the discipline, and the drills, and whatnot. Yet, when you get through that, and you get past that, and you see the relationships, the impact that the staff are having here - both the faculty, staff, the cadet life staff, and the rest of the staff - the impact that they're having on kids here is just phenomenal. I get that all the time with alumni. Some who've graduated within the last two or three years, and others who graduated fifty years ago. Their trips back here to the school are so nostalgic and so important to them. I've just heard from them over and over and over again about how important this institution was, how important those relationships were to them in their lives.

I'm very proud of that, although I'm kind of the new guy on board. I'm still proud of that and very happy to be part of a school where that type of impact, that type of influence on the lives of young people is taking place.

WF: While you are not the only military school president without a military background, how are you adapting and how are things different than other schools you have led?

JH: The school I came from most recently, I spent nine years at a boarding school in Kenya, also with a very large international flavor. So, I'm very fortunate in the fact that I'm coming from a school with a lot of similarities as far as the student makeup and the needs of the students and the boarding needs of students. So, that's helped me a great deal.

I have a great Commandant staff (military department) who are in the military, or are formerly in the military, have just been outstanding in helping me learn how to handle the saluting and a lot of the other things that go along with the rituals and celebrations that we have here. And so, it's been a little different getting used to the culture, but I have found everybody to be real welcoming. Even the students my first few months I was here would come up to me afterwards, I thought it was pretty humorous, because they wanted to help me out and they wanted to correct me, but they weren't quite sure how to approach the president to let him know what to, say, when he walks in the mess hall and somebody yells, "Mess hall at ease!". So it created some humorous moments, but I've received a lot of grace here over the first few months.

At this point, the new students coming in really don't have a sense of the fact that the military part of this is new to me. We'll just keep this our little secret for them.

WF: Along with your accomplishments, what do you see as your biggest challenges?

JH: I think it relates back to what I mentioned earlier about the misconceptions. I had a parent come in -- I had probably been here for about a month -- and she came in and she flew into the airport here in Greensboro and got an Uber car over here. And she came in my office to talk to me about her son and she said, "You have to do something about this. I got in the airport, told my Uber driver I was going to Oak Ridge Military Academy, and he said 'What did your son do? Why is he in trouble?'" And she said, "You know, I think if you put your mind to it I think it would only take a month or two to fix that with some marketing." And of course she had some marketing ideas for me. And so I think overcoming that concern or that misconception that people have about what military academies are all about, is something that not only are we facing at Oak Ridge Military Academy, but that military academies in general in the United States are working hard to overcome, and help people understand the value that military academies in general offer.

Of course for us, it's helping them understand the value that we offer as Oak Ridge Military Academy. I think if we can get that word out and we can get people to understand how important military education is for students, for whom it's appropriate, that we're a good fit for - I think if we can just get that word out and we can get people to understand that and change their conceptions about what military education is about, and the values that we're instilling in young people, and the benefits that young people gather from being at a school like this. I think that's probably our biggest challenge, and I think if we can overcome that we would see a real change in the number of students and type of students that are applying to Oak Ridge Military Academy and other military academies.

WF: What specifically are you doing to address this misconception?

JH: We're trying to get the story out about not only our alumni but our students, and if we can get them out and get those stories out there, and just try to get that narrative across about our students, and what type of students are here, how they're growing, and how they are developing into amazing young ladies and young men of character and leadership. If we can get that story out and just try to get that to multiply with other families and get people telling that story, I think that's one thing we are striving to do.

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