The Rhode Island Military Organization (RIMO) is looking for a Warwick location to start the country’s first non-profit-run military academy for at-risk students in Rhode Island.
RIMO president and CEO Anthony Paolino said the RIMO Youth Development Academy Strategic Planning Committee has been working since September to design the program, which is based on the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, and working with the city to find a possible location for the facility. Two possible locations are The Rhodes School and the Pvt. Lloyd S. Cooper III Army Reserve Center, an armory on Sandy Lane.
“It was a military facility. It seems to have everything we would need,” explained Tim Howe, RIMO vice president and chair of the Youth Development Academy, of the armory. Because it was a military facility, there is already a cafeteria, gym, residential rooms, large yard and other features that would be needed for the academy.
“It’d be a win for the city and a win for us,” said Paolino. Paolino believes Warwick is the ideal location for the academy because RIMO has made Warwick the center for military veterans in Rhode Island. RIMO is headquartered at Oakland Beach’s JONAH Center with their Veterans Resource Offices, operates the successful Military Lounge at T.F. Green Airport and organized the Student Veterans Coalition to help veterans transition to higher education.
“If we’re able to bring this academy, it would make Warwick one-of-a-kind,” said Paolino.
Paolino said Mayor Scott Avedisian, the City Council and the other various departments he has been in contact with through this process are very supportive of the idea; now they are just looking for the best fit.
“I think it is a great idea and would enhance educational opportunities here in the city. RIMO has been looking at locations and has expressed an interest in one city-owned facility,” said Mayor Scott Avedisian. “While being supportive, I have cautioned them that they need funding, a budget, a business plan, and lots more information before we could consider allowing them the use of city property.”
RIMO Youth Development Academy would be a 22-week residential, quasi-military academic program for 17- and 18-year-olds that are at risk of dropping out of high schools throughout Rhode Island. Teachers, administrators and professionals will be able to recommend dropouts or potential dropouts for the program, but it is voluntary.
Through the program, students will receive their GEDs, some college credits and follow one of three paths: Join the workforce, join the military or apply for continuing education.
“When they graduate, they will be ready and prepared for either the military, college or the workforce,” said Paolino.
According to Howe, this would be the country’s first military-style academy operated by a non-profit. Paolino explained that by operating the school under a non-profit, they have more freedom and are not attached to the federal government as the National Guard program is.
When asked how far into the planning process the committee is, Howe paraphrased Winston Churchill.
“It’s certainly not the beginning, but not the end,” he said. “We’ve already set down the organization, now we’re tweaking it.”
The committee decided the first two years of the program will be shorter at only 16 weeks and include only 25 students. Howe and Paolino explained this would give them a chance to focus on the initial students and make necessary changes as they grow. When implemented, the 22-week program would include 150 students.
Paolino said that all students will take part in the training and GED portions of the program, but then there is some freedom when it comes to other activities. If the student plans to join the military, they will receive help in preparing for the military entrance exams. Those hoping to go on to college will not only have the benefit of getting college credits through the College Unbound program, but they will get assistance with their entrance exams.
For those students interested in the work force, Paolino hopes to provide them access to the trades and, down the line, unions.
“They’re also going to be able to work with the trade programs,” said Paolino, adding Electric Boat is one example of a trade who would be willing to help the academy.
According to Paolino, this academy combines strong academics with the structure, discipline and values of the military. “They’re learning the things they need to learn, but they’re also learning the core values of the military,” said Paolino. “When you graduate, you have the tools, resources and core values necessary to succeed.”
The program would be held twice a year: Once in the fall and again after January.
“We would get kids from high school who might not graduate in May [for the January start] or did not graduate in June [for the September start],” said Paolino, adding the academy would follow a schedule similar to college semesters. “We would graduate the cadets around the time they would have graduated high school.”
Howe said the program features four phases.
The first is referred to as the “warrior phase” because for the first three or four weeks the students will be going through a strict training process on location at the academy.
“It’s going to be a very strict military academy setting,” explained Howe.
The second phase brings in academics, starting the students on their GED and enrichment work. During both the first and second phase, the students are kept at the facility with the exception of traveling to CCRI for classes.
The third phase will integrate the students back into the community by adding community service elements.
“One of the foundations of this country is getting community involvement and taking part in community service,” said Howe.
The final phase will include the students selecting one of the three paths and beginning necessary preparations, as well as being reacquainted to the real world.
“They came in with one attitude and are leaving with another one,” said Howe.
As for the cost, Paolino said the cadets won’t pay. Fundraising and grants will be used to cover operating the facility and other overhead costs.
“We want businesses and individuals in their community to sponsor the cadets,” said Paolino.
They have yet to determine how much would be required to sponsor one cadet, but it would include the cost of uniform, food, enrichment and training.
Every cadet who goes through the program will also have a mentor to meet with once a week while in the program; that mentor will keep in touch with them during the year following their graduation and report back to the Academy.
Paolino plans to have a pool of mentors for the cadets to choose from, or they can choose someone from their community. If a business owner or member of the community sponsors that cadet, the sponsor can also serve as mentor.
“The mentors are our form of accountability with the student,” said Paolino. The mentor can serve as an outlet for advice and counseling during and after the program.
Howe has a vision that those who have graduated from the program will eventually return and serve as mentors.
“I’m very big on alumni. I’m very big on paying back to where you came from,” said Howe.
Both Paolino and Howe see this academy as something good for Rhode Island’s youth.
According to Paolino, in the past few years there have been almost 8,000 high school dropouts in the state.
“If we can help 300 a year for the next 10 years, we’re only scratching the surface,” he said.
Paolino also believes this academy fills a need for structure that many at-risk teens don’t have.
“I find a lot of teenagers that don’t have a regular structure, a lot of them thrive with the discipline and the structure,” he said.
Howe sees the Academy as a way to address not only high school dropouts, but to help the students escape from the sense of mediocrity they might feel and see a life outside of the one they are in now.
“There’s so much more you can contribute outside of Rhode Island,” said Howe.
Additionally, Howe has studied the statistics that link high school dropout rates with criminal behavior.
“We’re looking at saving the state and the community a lot of money,” he said.
Overall, these teens are not just the ones who need help, but want help. Although administrators or teachers might have recommended them because they were at-risk of dropping out, it was their choice.
Howe described the future cadets as good kids who may not come from the best backgrounds but want more.
“These are the kids who couldn’t get it at school, but need guidance and maybe extra discipline,” he said.
If everything goes to plan and RIMO obtains their facility this spring, Paolino hopes to work through the summer and have the facility ready for its first class in the fall.