Prep school enriches Long Blue line despite shoestring budget

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
The Air Force Academy Preparatory School is no stranger to making do with little.

That tradition started in a meeting between Gen. William Stone, the Air Force Academy's third superintendent, and Col. Lee Black, the Prep School's first commander. During the meeting, Black asked about the Prep School's budget and whether he could have an outdoor sound system installed to sound Reveille, Retreat and Taps each day.
Stone reportedly answered, "Get a bugle."

The federal government's recent budgetary woes have hit the school hard, driving the amount of money spent per Prep School student down 20 percent since 2005, said Prep School Commander Col. Kabrena Rodda. But the Prep School continues to produce cadets who are more likely to graduate than direct-entry cadets with the same academic composite scores, which combine students' high school class rank, GPA and college admissions test scores.

Data provided by the Prep School compares cadet candidates' graduation rate with direct-entry cadets' graduation rate between 2006 and 2012. Cadet candidates whose academic composites ranged from 2,500 to 2,699 -- less than 7 percent of the cadet candidates sampled -- graduated at a lower rate than their direct-entry counterparts. Among the remaining 93 percent of cadet candidates, graduation rates varied from roughly 70 percent to nearly 90 percent.

What's more, without the Prep School, many of the students who go on to excel at the Academy would never have the chance, Rodda said.

"Last year, we had a young man whose mother was on drugs and whose dad was involved in crime," the colonel recalled. "He voluntarily became homeless so he could make something of himself and meantime was the president of the robotics club at his school and was pulling a 3.6 GPA. There's a young lady who was the top female graduate from the Navajo nation last year.

She's very, very smart, very resilient, but the school she went to, the coursework that she had available, was not sufficient for her to be successful on the hill, so she was a great candidate for here."

"A lot of these students are first-generation college, so they are changing their family trees by coming here," Rodda added. "For some of them ... this is maybe the first experience of a constructive family environment that they have. I hear over and over again, when I talk to Prep School graduates, that the year at the Prep School was the best year they experienced their whole time at the Academy, and not just in terms of the amount of fun they had but in the relationships they developed and the bonds that they formed. When they start to experience difficult times (at the Academy), they've already got a support network up there."

Col. Carolyn Benyshek went to the Prep School en route to her 1987 graduation from the Air Force Academy. She's now the Academy's director of admissions.
"The Prep School was the best 10 months of my life, with men and women who are now my classmates, fellow or Air Force officers and still my lifelong friends," she said.

The regimen
The Prep School's curriculum, like the Academy's, encompasses academic, military and athletic coursework, Rodda explained. Each cadet candidate takes math, science and English courses during their 10 months at the school. Each course is offered in multiple tracks to accommodate students' diversity of academic needs. Cadet candidates who score highly on placement tests may also take higher-level courses in calculus in the Prep School's second semester.

"They'll get grades directly entered into their transcript, so if they get an A or a B, that goes into their GPA," Rodda said. Last year, roughly 20 percent of the student body was enrolled in calculus and physics, with six students in the advanced English class.
The Prep School's military training program teaches cadet candidates how to comport themselves as Airmen, Rodda said. During basic training, they learn how to wear a uniform and how to observe customs and courtesies.

"Our military training is carefully calibrated because we don't want to repeat the fourth-class experience ... up on the hill," Rodda said. "Throughout the year, the focus is on cementing those customs and courtesies and also motivating them toward a career in our Air Force and continuing on toward the Air Force Academy."

That training also includes the Honor Code -- "We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does." Because the Prep School doesn't have upperclassmen, the school's staff enforces the Honor Code. Cadet candidates may observe Honor Boards at the Academy in those cases that are open to cadets, Rodda said.

Instructors also teach classes on the Honor Code's individual facets, pairing each piece with a corresponding virtue, Rodda said.

"Not only do we want not want you to lie, but we want you to be true to your word and live with integrity," she said. "Not only do we want you to not cheat, but we want you to learn to help others. It's trying to inculcate not just the bare minimum standards but an ideal to shoot for. It's not a 'Don't do this,' it's a 'Hey, please do this.'"

Faculty and AMTs don't stop at classroom education, however.

"If you tell somebody, 'Put your math book away, now pull your honor book out,' that communicates that you can compartmentalize," she said. "But if you capitalize on teachable moments as they happen, it's more effective."

The Prep School conducts a military training weekend once a quarter, Rodda said. Sometimes that includes open-ranks inspections, but it can also include more fun events. One weekend last year included a military working dog demonstration; other past events have resembled field days.

The Prep School's athletic training consists of preparing cadet candidates for the Academy's rigorous aerobic and physical fitness tests. Cadet candidates must retake the test until they score a 250 or higher on both tests. Cadet candidates who score below 200 on either test are placed in a reconditioning course.

"Once they pass it, they have an opportunity to do self-paced workouts," Rodda said, "but we also have a number of clubs they've initiated. For example, for the second year in a row, we have a cross-country running club. One of the young ladies and a few of the men in the class competed in the Falcon 50 (a 50-mile race).

"On the athletic side, it's more about preparing them for a lifetime of fitness. And then on top of that, the recruited athletes have team practices and contests, that sort of thing," she said.

The wide scope of training prepares Prep School graduates to succeed, Benyshek said.
"The Prep School helped to fill in my academic gaps and got me to a level where I could succeed at the Academy," said Benyshek, who graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA but didn't score well on the standardized tests that are part of most colleges' admissions process. However, she added, "My 10 months in the program did a lot more for me than just academics. I learned a lot about myself and my ability to adapt and be resilient, living away from home for the first time."

Stretching the shoestring
All this comes on a budget that has continually shrunk in the last eight years. In 2005, the Prep School spent approximately $63,000 per cadet candidate's education. By 2013, that number had diminished to $50,000. The Prep School has tried to keep the quality of its education consistent through having instructors fill multiple roles, Rodda said.

"There's an expectation for every single staff member that, there's the role you were hired into, but we expect you to fill in other roles as well," she said. "For example, one of our football coaches also teaches math. He is credentialed appropriately to do that. We have Academy military training NCOs who help with coaching. Some of our academic staff helps with military training during basic training.

"It's almost a high school model in terms of how everybody gets involved," she said. "People willingly and happily do that, and without that all-in commitment, there's no way we'd be successful."

The faculty is roughly one-half military and one-half civilian. That diverse mix hit the Prep School particularly hard during the first week of October's government shutdown, when nearly all Defense Department civilians were furloughed, Rodda said. Only two employees, who were field trainers, were initially exempted for safety reasons.

"There were times when the military staff who were left to keep the mission running came up to the front office just to see another person and interact with somebody," she said. "We had two science instructors, three math instructors and four English instructors to teach six sections of six courses. The only way to do that was to combine classes, so we went to the Community Center Theater ... and we'd hold two or three sections at once. And they got it done."

Fortunately, the unscheduled furlough didn't last longer than a week. Any longer, Rodda said, and it would have affected student placement.

"If we'd gone another week, we would not have been able to get them broken up into the right tracks," she said. "The greatest concern is the students most academically at risk, and the skills track courses are taught by our civilian faculty. So we'd have had to have them continue in the regular track ... and then you're running counter to why this place exists."

And the Prep School exists now as it always has: As a gateway to the Air Force Academy for those who might otherwise not have a shot.

"The Prep School is a great investment for the Air Force and our nation," Rodda said. "The Prep School exists gives an awful lot of prior-enlisted Airmen a pathway toward becoming an officer that otherwise might not exist. The fact that the Cadet Wing looks like America is due largely to the Prep School, and that success rate for most of the cadets who are Prep School grads compared to their direct-entry counterparts is why I say it's a great investment."