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Riverside Military Academy molds future troops
The Gainesville-based high school aims for excellence in class and on the field
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With an eye toward nearby officers, a group of cadets double-times it to line up for parade practice Wednesday at Riverside Military Academy. The cadets marched in the Veteran’s Day parade in Atlanta on Saturdayas defending champions. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Veterans Day is a day of celebration and remembrance for those who have fought for our country. But the young men and women of our local military schools, many of whom aspire to continue the tradition of this holiday by formally serving in uniform, are often overlooked.

In a time when most boarding schools are trending down in applications and enrollments, Gainesville’s Riverside Military Academy, a distinguished military boarding school for grades 7-12, has achieved nine straight semesters of increased enrollment and a record-setting number of cadets, which currently sits at 435. In addition, the school has six graduates who are attending the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., more than any other high school in the nation.

RMA president Col. James Benson attributes the academy’s success to a return to a traditional military school model of education.

“I think over the years the academy moved away from its roots, which was structure, discipline, high expectations and a commitment to the development of young men’s characters, as well as their cognitive abilities,” he said. “We want a strong emphasis on the basics in order to develop the cadet’s whole person.”

The school actualizes this goal through various means. Riverside cadets have structured schedules from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., which leaves very little time for discretionary activity. The schedule also promotes extracurricular activities such as participation in sports, JROTC programs and student leadership organizations, among other activities.

The school’s color guard is participating in the Atlanta Veterans Day Parade, one of the largest celebrations of the holiday in the nation, Saturday at 11:11 a.m. in downtown Atlanta. For the past four years, the school has won the President’s Trophy for the best marching unit at the parade.

Also, Riverside’s Military Drum Corps, Men’s Ensemble and Old Traditional Army Marching Cadence will perform at 10:50 a.m. today at the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, followed by an invocation by Col. Benson.

Additionally, the school competes in the Raider championship, a competition modeled after the ROTC’s Ranger program. It includes events such as the cross-country litter carry, obstacle courses, one-rope bridge crossing and physical training tests. Col. Benson noted the school’s team is ranked sixth in the nation.

Riverside Commandant Lt. Gen. Kevin Jarrard said the school is one of the more diverse schools in the state, with cadets from 23 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states. Despite its high enrollment, the school expects to increase the student population in the spring semester to 500 students, which would reach its maximum capacity for the first time since shortly after World War II.

“It is a tremendous opportunity for a young man to be able to interact with peers (who) are that diverse,” he said. “Then to take that group and mold them around a common set of principles and standards is the beauty of the military model of education.

“Regardless of the color of your skin or where you’re from, in a military environment you see a meritocracy at work.”

The school also employs a “Character Development Program.” Every two weeks, the school hosts a distinguished speaker to talk about various topics and experiences, with a focus on personal integrity, sound judgement, ethical decision-making and social skills. During the off weeks, cadets meet with faculty members to discuss the previous week’s speaker and their message. Recent speakers have included former coach of the Buffalo Bills and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Chan Gailey, former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak and former commander of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command Maj. Gen. Mastin Robeson.

“Particularly in an economy like this, you absolutely have to surround your students with moral anchors, role models and people who can motivate them to achieve at or near their God-given ability,” Benson said. “With six cadets at West Point and one at the naval academy, and three to five more this year who have a chance of being accepted, that doesn’t happen by accident. We won’t graduate more than a hundred students, and to have that many cadets going on to the academies, which are arguably the most difficult schools in the country to be admitted to, it speaks well for the quality of education.”