To say Derek Abad was underachieving would be an understatement.
As a sixth-grader in Madison Middle School's medical magnet program, he was scraping by with a 2.3 grade-point average.
His parents were furious. They said Abad needed discipline, so they encouraged him to join the school's California Cadet Corps, a National Guard youth program similar to ROTC. They said, by doing so, he could follow in the military tradition of his grandfather, uncle and father, all Army veterans.
Eighteen months later and now an eighth-grader, 13-year-old Sgt. Maj. Abad has a 3.7 GPA and is the second-highest-ranking cadet in the North Hollywood program. He commands the corps' drill team, barking orders so loud it seems unnatural for his 5-foot-2, 105-pound frame.
"It was rough the first four or five months," Abad said. "I didn't want to get yelled at any more. I didn't want to let anyone down."
The Cadet Corps, begun at Madison with modest expectations six years ago, has become the saving grace for dozens of students, some with a history of behavioral problems, school officials say. Report cards that once bore mostly Fs and Ds now show A's and Bs, largely because of a reward system that promotes cadets for academic achievement and good deeds, students say.
The corps has an enrollment of 210 this year -- about 10% of Madison's student body -- and is expected to expand to 285 in the fall, making the program one of the largest of 15 in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Several other district middle schools are expected to add programs, offering physical training and military drills, said Col. Larry Morden, head of a 25-year-old program at Pacoima Middle School that serves 140 students.
The California Cadet Corps has 8,000 members on 80 campuses, 65 of which are middle schools, said Col. John Bernatz of the California National Guard.
"We're not an anti-military society anymore," Morden said, citing the effect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Not that I stress the military aspect. It's more about teaching leadership."
The same holds true at Madison, where its majority low-income, immigrant community has challenged the school to reach its academic goals. The Cadet Corps aims to instill a work ethic and self-esteem in students, who would then set an example and encourage classmates to achieve the same.
The program fulfills the students' physical education requirement. Cadets dress in fatigues three times a week when gym class is scheduled.
About 20 cadets serve on the drill team and the color guard and wear a dress uniform. The color guard has been invited to open Dodger and Clipper games with a flag presentation.
The cadets share the same homeroom, giving the group a certain esprit de corps.
Has it worked? Two years ago, the program had one instructor and 40 cadets. Suspension rates were high and Madison's standardized test scores were mediocre.
Today, the corps has three instructors and five times the number of cadets. Last year, the campus recorded the most-improved test scores for a district middle school. Among the student body, the cadets showed the most gains on standardized tests.
Principal JoAnna Kunes credited the cadets and a yearlong campus campaign to boost math and reading scores for the school's performance.
The corps' focus on attitude also helped decrease the number of suspensions by about 30% since 1999, officials say.
"We've seen a change in the climate here," said Kunes, who has been principal at Madison for 15 years. "You know with the cadets that there's a core of younger people who will respond and be responsible. Not goody, goody-two-shoes, but students teachers can rely on."
The Cadet Corps costs $30,000 a year to run. Students pay $25 a semester, which barely covers the cost of uniforms and school mascot pins -- of a bulldog -- that are awarded to the cadets for achievement. A student receives a promotion for good grades, positive teacher referrals and performing well within the corps.
"Last year, my friends were making fun of me" for joining the corps, said Sgt. 1st Class Harut Abramyan, a seventh-grader who has erased the memory of his three suspensions and poor grades. "Now they want to join."
To have a diverse corps, Nassour and fellow commandants Ray Hutchison and Barry Shrewsbury choose a variety of students, including low-performing, high-performing, attitude problems, special education and ESL (English as a second language).
Parents must sign a pledge that they will support their children through the program.
That support is important because the first few months can be the most strenuous. New cadets suddenly encounter a strict routine they've never before experienced.
"A lot of these kids have brothers in gangs and parents in prison," said Hutchison, a 20-year Army veteran. "The Cadet Corps is a way for them to belong to something. They don't need to be in a gang to feel needed."