OAK RIDGE, N.C. (WGHP) — For many families, the worst part of the pandemic was when their children couldn’t be taught in-person at their school.

There wasn’t much the larger public schools could do about that, but that didn’t make it any easier for families like the Newtons. Although their son did fine with remote learning, like a lot of kids, their daughter Makena – normally an excellent student – struggled with it. 

But they found an answer they hadn’t been thinking of just up the road at the Oak Ridge Military Academy.

“There were a lot of reasons that it worked: it was a small class size…leadership skills, character building, and it’s just an excellent institution that’s just a mile from our house,” said Makena’s mom, Lisa Newton.

Although Makena doesn’t live on campus, many of the academy’s roughly 100 cadets do, which allowed them to be able to navigate the pandemic in the way most schools can’t.

“We’re resilient, and we have staying power, and that was reinforced during the COVID period,” said the man they call “Major B.” Bobby Barbera has taught at the school for 56 years. 

That’s not a typo. He’s been there since the fall of 1966, although he looks young enough to have arrived just a dozen years ago.

But it’s not just that the school had little remote learning during the pandemic, it’s the atmosphere they’ve created and nurtured here over the 170 years of its existence that makes the difference. First, there is the family dynamic.

“It sounds cheesy, and I tell this to the parents when they bring them around my room: you can actually make a difference with a kid, here,” Barbera said. “A kid who comes here as a boarding student…spends more time with us than he does his parents.”

Also, it’s the discipline that the military portion of their name instills that works wonders for many of the students.

“Our students know what’s required of them every moment of the day. Having that structure, having the attention of the adults here and the smaller environment stays on top of students that are struggling,” said Academic Dean Caroline McKaughan.

McKaughan knows the value of that first hand as a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston, SC. 

As academic dean, she hears from parents who love the transformation their children make, often telling McKaughan, “My child made a 180. They’re a totally different person. They’re confident. They have the best grades they’ve ever had.”

Ninety-eight percent of Oak Ridge Military Academy students are accepted to colleges, and the teachers there say they’re not surprised.

“The teaching is like euphoria for the true teacher,” said Carolyn Wray, who taught for 29 years in North Carolina public schools. “The classrooms are small. If you see a child that really is behind or needs extra help, you’ve always got the time to work with him.”

See more about how the Oak Ridge Military Academy operates in this edition of the Buckley Report.