Comm-UNITY School

If you walk through the front doors of Edward H. White Military Academy of Leadership, you’ll notice the hallways are clear and the usual high school commotion is absent. That is, until you make your way to the lunchroom during one of the three lunch sessions. There you’ll find the kids in their natural environment: joking, laughing and enjoying themselves.

This is where Scot Miller-Bent and Summer McLane gathered every day for a week to engage with the students.

The program is Frontline Families; its main objective is to inspire and train military families and veterans to be leaders and volunteers in their community.

Last year, in an attempt to cut down on fights and incidents among the student body, Edward H. White High School became a military academy. Director John Everett said there are far fewer incidents and that test scores and graduation percentages have gone up.

“I think when anyone hears a military academy, they think ‘drop down and give me 50,’ but it’s not that,” said Everett.

The academy seems to have created a disciplined mentality among the students. They aren’t allowed in the hallways unless they’re heading to and from class and lunch and, of course, bathroom breaks and necessary things in between.

Frontline Families also helps further shape these students into community leaders. Frontline Families, an AmeriCorps program implemented by Points of Light, has signed a five-year contract with Ed White Military Academy; they’re in it for the long haul. (HandsOn Jacksonville is an approved host site for the program.)

“It’s a long-term goal … if these students graduate with the tools they need to be successful, they’ll come back to the community,” said Everett.

Miller-Bent and McLane spent one week in the lunchroom, passively engaging with the students about what the program is and what they would bring to the table. They offered the students a class comprising several lessons: Community needs and project goals, components of a project, fundraising, budgeting and evaluation, volunteer recruitment and recognition, and project development.

The students are expected to complete 10 hours of professional volunteer leadership training, which includes the classes and two hours of community service. Training takes four to eight weeks, depending on the scope of the project. Just by attending classes, the students invest a minimum of 12 hours of community service. The yearly expectation of service for Bright Futures is 25 hours, for a total of 100 hours minimum over four years.

“They’ll probably be more in the range of 16 to 20 hours, which is a huge chunk of the 100-hour minimum,” said Miller-Bent.

They had a total of 38 students sign up for the class in just one week. They initially capped participation at eight students who had a connection to the military. But after those numbers more than quadrupled, the classes were opened up to all students.

“We’re going to be teaching the classes anyway, so other students might as well come and benefit, too,” said Miller-Bent.

Miller-Bent and McLane both have their reasons for wanting to give back to their community. McLane, a military spouse, is quite aware of how connecting with community helps the transition when moving from place to place.

McLane spent three years in Japan before moving to Jacksonville. In order to interact with a new community, she immediately started volunteering.

“When you want a career as a military spouse, it is tough to have to pick up, start over, reconnect and network in a new city every two to three years,” explained McLane.

She understands how difficult it can be for some students to build their credentials for college when they’re constantly changing schools and moving from town to town.

“The students are looking for ways to increase their scholarship opportunities, or their knowledge,” said McLane. Frontline Families is giving them the opportunity to network as students.

“I really want them to have options,” said McLane, “for them to know there are other ways you can give back to your community and establish your own business using the techniques that we’re going to be teaching them.”

While McLane is enthusiastic about what Frontline Families can do for these students, one thing that makes her work easier is that the students are just as enthusiastic.

“When you talk to them, it’s amazing. They shift in their mind and you can see the switch … from playful to focused.”

Edward H. White’s Student Leadership Council has come up with many proposals for things they would like to see change in the school and the community, such as courtyard renovation, investing resources in the art department’s equipment and supplies, more electives, stopping bullying, etc.

Frontline Families’ approach to the school is ‘What do you need?’ rather than ‘This is what we’re going to give you.’

Maleshah Williams, a senior at Ed White Military Academy and a Student Leadership Council member, joined the Frontline Families class for many reasons.

“I want to get involved in my community … I want to be well-rounded,” said Williams, “I’m going into the U.S. Army Reserves, so it will be a good experience for me.”

Williams’ father is in the Navy; she said he’s encouraging her to do this and she wants him to know she takes the class seriously. Williams explained she wants to see more than just a surface change in her community.

“I want to get to the nitty-gritty,” Williams clarified, “the struggles, the environment, the homeless shelters ….”

She recognizes the need for guidance and structure for youth in her community.

“I think we could use more outreach programs for our youth because today they don’t really know what togetherness is … I want them to know that someone is out here caring for them.”

Just like Williams, Miller-Bent has family who served in the military. Both of his parents were officers in the Reserves; he joined the Cub Scouts as a boy and gradually made his way up to Eagle Scout. Miller-Bent said he’s always had the desire to give back.

“When I was old enough, I joined the military and was active duty for a few years.”

Miller-Bent sees the importance of getting young people started early volunteering and doing something to make the community a better place.

“If you plant that seed while they’re still young and developing who they are and who they want to be, hopefully that means that they’ll give back throughout their entire lives.”

He said he notices the drive in the students to become better members of their community, and to really work on making a better environment for their community, themselves and the students who come after them.

“You see that spark and that light … if we can teach them early, they’ll advance early. It gives them a good springboard in life.”

Jailayah Thomas, also a senior and member of the Student Leadership Council, has no direct affiliation with the military; she just wants to make a difference.

“I just like helping people,” said Thomas, adding that she’s concerned with homelessness in Jacksonville, which sparked her desire to help those less fortunate.

Thomas, like other Student Leadership Council members, has ideas about various ways to better the school and the community. Getting students into afterschool activities is something she thinks would make a big difference.

Thomas has already applied to several colleges. The volunteer hours she’ll earn with Frontline Families will only improve her chances of admission.

Edward H. White’s slogan is “Launching Leadership in a Community School,” with an emphasis on the word ‘unity.’ Unity between the community and its youth is exactly what Frontline Families wants to help these students create.

“They’re teaching them discipline, but they’re also focused on community,” said McLane, “and they capitalize on the unity part of it to symbolize coming together.”