MEXICO, Mo. — Andrew Cruzen and Evan Spaulding awake each morning to the sounds of a bugle and footsteps marching in formation to the breakfast table.
Cruzen and Spaulding, both 17, are among a record 272 cadets who began classes last week at the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico. As seniors, the two say they are excited about their futures and nostalgic about the past three years at the military school. And while their paths to the 116-year-old academy were different, their reasons for staying in school there are the same.
Spaulding, of Lake Ozark, entered as a sophomore with a dream of attending West Point Academy.
“I needed a kick,” he said. “And I liked the structure and the brotherhood and all the opportunities I couldn’t get at public school.”
In contrast, Cruzen of O’Fallon, Ill., said he had little choice in the decision to attend the academy. Academic difficulties and his rebellion forced his parents to find an alternative to public high school.“I was getting distracted by my fellow peers and I needed structure and discipline,” Cruzen said.
That structure, he said, comes in the form of 24-hour supervision and a college preparatory curriculum. The academy also has a junior school for students in fifth through eighth grades. The academy is demanding, some say, but it does not operate under boot camp conditions.
“It’s definitely not ‘drop and give me twenty,’” said Capt. Luke Smith, a spokesman for the academy. “We use military ethics, discipline and structure but our main focus is on college prep.” This idea of college preparatory encompasses more than just curriculum although the academy does offer six Advanced Placement courses and opportunities for college credit. Class sizes have an 11–to-1 ratio of student to teacher.All students, including those who attend the junior school, live on campus and are required to attend two-hour study halls at night. This year, the academy also has developed an ACT/SAT preparatory course. More than 95 percent of the academy‘s graduates go on to college.
“It’s a good intermediate step between traditional high school and college life,” Smith said. “It’s living on your own but with structure. That way it’s not such a big transition when college does come.”
It might be this combination of programs that's attracting cadets from a wide range of backgrounds. This year, 65 percent of cadets come from 23 different states, 30 percent from the country of Mexico and the remaining 5 percent from nine other countries, including Japan.
The academy creditsits success in the recruitment of such diverse cadets to a variety of reasons.
“There are a lot of factors that go into recruitment,” Smith said. “One is simply the 116-year tradition. That’s 116 years worth of alumni who can give positive information. Another big draw is our Web site because so much information can be accessed so easily.”
Victor Ibarra of Mexico City, whose son Diego attends the academy, learned about the school from a family friend who has attended for three years. For Ibarra, the academy’s structure is worth seeing his son just once a year.
“He likes the idea of a military school and he needs to live with some structure,” Ibarra said. “I’m quite sure he’s going to get it here. “I have no worries about him being here, he’s a tough guy.”
But even tough guys admit they face challenges at the academy. “It’s difficult sometimes being away from your family,” said Spaulding, the 17-year-old from Lake Ozark. “It’s a shock and sometimes people can’t handle it.”
Director of Admissions Gen.Dennis Diederich said the average stay for cadets at the academy is 2½- years, although most students who start after their sophomore year usually graduate. . This is often a result of monetary concerns more than anything else, Diederich said. Tuition at the academy is more than $18,000. Add the cost of uniforms, schools supplies and every day living and the annual bill rises to about $25,000 per year. Some cadets, however, view the absence of girls at the school as the greatest challenge.
“Oh my God, you have no idea.,” Spaulding said. “Yeah, that’s the worst part.”
Cruzen, the 17-year-old from O’Fallon, Ill., was quick to agree.
“That’s by far the worst part.,” he said. “Worse than not being able to see your family — well maybe.”
Still, Cruzen and Spaulding have stayed at the academy for three years — longer than most. Spaulding said dreams of West Point have been replaced by aspirations of attending Norwich University, the country’s oldest private military college in Northfield Vt. He said he’ll take with him the lessons he has learned at the academy. “I’ve stayed because of the people I’ve met and also because of what I’ve learned,” Spaulding said. “You live with 200 people all the time and you start to become a family. And I’ve seen the man I want to become from all the challenges we’ve faced.”
And though he was reluctant to come three years ago, Cruzen, too, said the system works.
“I’ve come a long way academically from straight C’s to a 3.7 GPA,” he said. “I know I’ll be able to control myself in college as a result of the discipline I’ve learned here.”