When a federal program was launched to help military veterans become teachers, the education community was skeptical of "crusty old Marines" relating to kids.
Eighteen years later, Troops to Teachers operates in all 50 states and in U.S. territories, including an office that opened in the fall on the West Chester University campus. The $14 million program is funded by the Departments of Education and Defense and is managed by DANTES, an education initiative to support the armed forces.
"Once the folks got into the classroom, they proved that the program was getting the right kind of teachers into the school," said John Gantz, the first chief, or administrative head, of Troops to Teachers.
The program provides veterans from any branch of the service with stipends to use toward education certifications and then gives them advice for finding teaching jobs. It's up to the veterans to land jobs themselves, but Troops to Teachers offers guidance during the often uncertain transition from military to civilian life.
Gantz credited the program's success to its participants' military service, which he said encouraged them to bring discipline, commitment, experience, and high expectations to the classroom.
"A lot of people think that because I'm in the military I run my classroom like a boot camp," said Joyce Abbott, a Troops to Teachers participant and sixth-grade teacher at Andrew Hamilton School in West Philadelphia.
"We laugh; we have fun," she said, but never at the expense of respect and her high standards for students' work.
Known for her tough grading, Abbott, 51, also has a reputation among Hamilton middle schoolers for being there in the off hours with food, clothing, and even some spare dollars for students in rough patches.
What seems like going above and beyond to most pales in comparison to Abbott's decade in the Army and 10-month tour in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. Having a school day that ends at 3 p.m. and summers off doesn't stack up to her military schedule of seven days a week with 6 a.m.-6 p.m. shifts and only 30 days off a year.
Her students, who said they were first intimidated by her military background, now recognize that Abbott pushes them for their own benefit.
"Well, if [her] standard goes up, my standard has to go up, too," said Charles McCoy, 12. Unlike his previous teachers, McCoy said, Abbott gave him C's at the beginning of the year and has made him work his way up to B's and soon A's.
Brandon Winfield, 12, made the mistake of not wearing his uniform to the first day of Abbott's class.
"She was on me like white on rice," Winfield said. He has worn it since.
"The way she had her expectations for us, I could tell she wasn't like other teachers," said Davia Blair, 12.
Abbott, who has taught for 16 years at Hamilton since leaving the military, is one of 35 Troops to Teachers participants in the Philadelphia region. Annette Gittelman, Hamilton's principal, had not heard of the program before Abbott arrived but said without hesitation she would be willing to hire more veterans.
With the help of the West Chester office, that may soon be possible. The office moved from Harrisburg to the Philadelphia area to better serve a region in need of science, math, and special-education teachers. It recruits for teaching positions in Pennsylvania and New York State.
Vanessa Barron, a retired U.S Army colonel who manages the Pennsylvania and New York program from the West Chester office, said Troops to Teachers encouraged veterans to take on challenging subjects.
"More of our participants statistically are willing to teach in the critical need areas," said Beth Murray, a program assistant in West Chester.
Compared to only 24 percent nationally, 32 percent of Troops to Teachers participants choose to teach math or science. Eighteen percent, compared to 12 percent nationally, teach special education.
Jonathan Jones, a former Air Force staff sergeant, said the stipend was what first drew him to teaching, but some words of encouragement from Barron reminded him he had more to offer and got him involved as a program mentor.
"I probably wouldn't have stayed," Jones said. His other career plans had included mobile therapy or pharmaceutical consulting. Instead, he earned two master's degrees and is completing a Ph.D. in education at Walden University while substitute-teaching in Philadelphia.
Peter Chapla, a former Marine and the principal of Valley View High School in Archbald, Pa., said he also might not have had the tools to become an educator without Troops to Teachers.
With troops being withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, Chapla said he had seen an increase in interest since 1996, when he received his teaching certification.
"If you're breaking from the service, it's an ideal time to get into the program," Chapla said he advises potential participants.
After 12 and half years of active service, two more years in the reserves, and a deployment during Desert Storm, Chapla said, teaching has proved just as challenging and rewarding.
"I've had an even more eventful time here," he said from his principal's office at Valley View.