This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of New Orleans Magazine.
Academics, Leadership, and Citizenship at the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy
The New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy, located beside the US Coast Guard and the Marine Corps Support Facility on the West Bank, has a creed. Students—called “cadets” at NOMMA—say it at the start of every class. It begins, “I am a Junior ROTC cadet. I will always conduct myself to bring credit to my family, country, school, and the corps of cadets.”
“I think that over the course of time, those words and values that they’re teaching have a deeper and deeper meaning,” says Principal Danny Garbarino. “You start in 8th grade, and by the time you get to 12th grade, you have a deeper appreciation. By graduation day, when cadets are reciting the creed for the last time, they get emotional. I see tears on their faces.”
The school’s values—Academics, Leadership, and Citizenship—and the Marine Corps Values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment—shape all aspects of daily life at NOMMA. Every cadet is a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). Each morning, their uniforms are inspected in morning formation. Older cadets are assigned the leadership position of inspecting their younger peers.
This looks different than the start of many school days across New Orleans, but NOMMA is an open-enrollment public school, educating cadets in grades 8-12 in a largely traditional academic model.
It opened in 2011 with a class of 100. Today, the school is around 955 cadets strong. As a BESE Type 2 Charter, they serve students statewide; NOMMA’s cadets hail not just from New Orleans, but from six parishes across Louisiana.
“We’re not a boot camp. We’re just a high school with a Marine influence and Marine structure,” Garbarino explains. “The only big difference is that we don’t offer PE, because JROTC involves physical training.”
NOMMA has a college preparatory curriculum, with Advanced Placement classes and career and technical education. Cadets can prepare for careers in maritime, cyber engineering, digital media and business management.
What sets NOMMA apart is its military orientation. NOMMA’s educators are both civilian teachers and retired military instructors. In addition to Garbarino, the school is led by Colonel Chris Schlafer, US Marine Corps (Ret.), who serves as the Commandant of the academy. They are a “Naval Honor School,” a designation based on their performance with JROTC, as well as their academics and community service work. This gives them the ability to nominate cadets to the United States service academies—like the United States Naval Academy or the United States Military Academy. Usually, only members of Congress, Senators, the Vice President, or the President of the United States can make these nominations.
Embedded in NOMMA’s unique model is a deep commitment to leadership and character education.
“Our goal is to instill in all of them a sense of self-discipline and personal responsibility. Our program develops their leadership, communication skills, and problem-solving ability. We prepare and motivate them to be productive members of society, all grounded in the same values,” Colonel Schlafer says.
“There’s a lot of stuff we teach that’s not really traditional academics. It goes back to leadership, self-discipline, honesty, and ethics,” Garbarino says.
They do this by weaving their values into everything they do. “We provide academic learning and character development at the same time,” Colonel Schlafer says. “Community service is an inherent part of the program. Cadets have to complete 20 hours of community service each year. And senior cadets have to complete a project working with organizations in the community for 25 hours. They earn an embossed community service designator on their diploma.”
In their winter canned food drive for Second Harvest Food Bank, cadets gathered 3100 cans, totaling 4000 pounds of food.
They are supported in everything from community service, to academics, to character education, by NOMMA’s committed educators.
“Teachers and Marines collaborate with one another here; they are a diverse and eclectic group of people for whom this is a calling, not just a job. It’s a unique academic institution where Marines and civilians get together and teach our cadets,” Garbarino says.
Together, educators guided cadets to incredible academic success this year, marked by the school’s “A” School Performance Score (SPS) letter grade and status as a 2019 Equity Honoree. They were also designated as a Top Gains school for their excellence in year-over-year student growth, and improved by 10 SPS points since their 2018 score.
“When we got the A, we celebrated for a couple of days, and then we turned and said, okay, how do we maintain this? I’m an old football coach and that’s my mentality. I said, what are we going to do next? What do we need to focus on?” Garbarino explains.
NOMMA’s “A” represents a school providing a top-quality education, preparing young people for opportunities beyond the school’s walls. In 2018, their graduation rate was 97%; around 51% of cadets were enrolled in college the fall after graduation, and 12-15% went to the military.
“Whatever the path they choose later on, we hope our cadets look back on this institution and think it helped put them in the right direction,” Colonel Schlafer says. “We hope they come to recognize their talents, share them with the community, and that they’re happy. And we hope they are considered a man or woman of honor and integrity, that they are making a contribution in their chosen field.”
Guided by clear values and bolstered by a strong education, NOMMA is preparing them to do just that.