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Army of recruiters invades New York city highs

By Kathleen Lucadamo

The U.S. military is most successful recruiting city students from super-sized high schools with mediocre graduation rates and tight security, a Daily News analysis has found.

Twenty students at Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx enlisted in the Army during the last academic year, more than any other public school in the five boroughs, according to data obtained by The News.

"A lot of kids here prefer military over college because their parents can't pay for college," said Vallin Hickson, a senior at Pelham Prep, one of five schools housed in Columbus High.

The public high schools that deliver the most recruits to the military are not among the city's best or worst.

Those schools are academically average and strikingly similar: Most enroll about 4,000 students and are located in ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. The dropout rates are better than the citywide average of 16%; more than half of seniors pass state exams and school safety agents swarm the hallways.

"The military is not recruiting the bottom of the barrel by any means. They are targeting the working class," said Charles Morose, sociologist and military expert at Northwestern University.

Military recruiters also are creatures of habit and routinely return to schools where they have had success in past years. They have become fixtures at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn and Aviation High School in Queens.

"They aren't going to waste time in a school that doesn't want them," said Air Force Master Sgt. Chris Haug.

At Columbus High, recruiters set up camp in the hallways and cafeteria at least twice a month. At other large schools, they also attend student concerts, football games, help teach gym classes and linger in the parking lot.

"They don't pressure you at all," said Salimah Allotey, 16, a junior at Columbus High.

There is no limit to how often recruiters can visit a school, and federal law requires the city to allow them in high schools for college fairs. But many principals let them in more often.

The armed services are starved for manpower and are increasingly looking to high schools for enlisted men and women. The Army alone is estimated to need 100,000 recruits.

But not all schools are welcoming.

"Some of the guidance counselors treat us like criminals. They want all their students to go to college," said Navy Petty Officer Eliezer Loyola.

At George Westinghouse Vocational High School in Brooklyn, Loyola said, a counselor recently scolded a student for talking to a recruiter. "It makes our job really difficult," Loyola said.

Since the military has quotas for the number of recruits who can sign up without high school diplomas, recruiters lean heavily on schools with high school equivalency programs and avoid those with high dropout rates.

New York City and other urban areas aren't always the best recruiting grounds, experts said. The military has thrived in rural areas with depressed economies where young people have limited job or college prospects, according to the National Priorities Panel, a research group that analyzed recruiting data by zip code and high school.

But recruiters also said students who have spent four years being scrutinized by school cops may be better able to adjust to the military's strict rules.

"They are 17 years old, being yelled at by security officers and going through metal detectors," Loyola said. "Those security officers treat those students worse than our drill sergeants would."

Won't be answering Uncle Sam's call

Joining the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines has never been an option for David Lombardo, a 17-year-old from Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. "Soldiers are being sent to do the wrong thing, and I don't want to be a tool for a war I don't support," said Lombardo, a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Lombardo completed a federal opt-out form in November, prohibiting his school from sending his name and contact information to military recruiters.

"I don't feel comfortable with recruiters having my information with no say about it," he said.

Lombardo is waiting to hear back from several universities but hopes to attend Colby College in Maine in the fall.

Anchor's aweigh for B'klyn Tech senior

Tiffany Hodgson, an 18-year-old from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, signed up for the Navy because she isn't ready to go to college yet. "I need a break," said Hodgson, a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School, who began thinking about enlisting two years ago when her ex-boyfriend joined the Navy.

In November, long before she got accepted into Brooklyn College and the University of Hartford, she walked into a Flatbush Ave. recruiting station and signed up for the Navy.

She ships out for basic training in September, and hopes to save money to pay for school while serving her country.

"They have tuition assistance for when I'm ready for college, which is good because I know I can't pay for it myself," she said. "And you get to travel with the Navy, and I don't have money to travel."

When she tells teachers and classmates at the elite high school about her decision, they stare at her in disbelief. But she is confident she made the right choice.

"I'm really nervous about how it will be," she said. "But I'll be nervous whether I start the Navy or college."

— Kathleen Lucadamo
New York Daily News


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