FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Austin Swarner left high school to care for his mother while she fought a losing battle with cancer. Tony Brown wanted to begin supporting himself and left two classes shy of a diploma. Haelee Holden got tired of trying to make it through school while flipping burgers until 1 a.m.
But the U.S. Army, eager to fill its ranks amid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn’t see them as dropouts. They are recruits who only need a GED before they’re ready to begin basic training.
And so, the Army formally opens its first prep school Wednesday.
‘‘It’s academic immersion,’’ explained Col. Jeffrey Sanderson, chief of staff at Fort Jackson, home of the Army’s largest basic training school. ‘‘Our studies show that with only three out of every 10 people of military age being capable of joining the Army, we are going to have to do something different.’’
That includes turning six World War II-era buildings at the base into a mini-campus of spartan classrooms and barracks. Under the yearlong pilot project, classes of about 60 soldiers will enter the monthlong program every week.
Their day begins in uniform at 5 a.m. with physical training. Then they attend about eight hours of academic review classes, followed by homework each evening. An hour of marching drills and military discipline is thrown in for good measure.
‘‘It’s a tough, structured day. Some of them have sat on the couch for 18 years, but I haven’t heard any howling yet,’’ said social studies instructor John Solis, one of 14 certified teachers on hand. ‘‘By and large, they are chomping at the bit; they are ready to go.’’
The soldiers work in small classrooms outfitted with simple desks, chairs and dry-erase boards. In-desk computers are used for test-taking. Grouped three to four to a class, the students hunch over special GED preparation books, working on basic math, social studies and reading selections.
Recruits must score in the top half of the Army’s aptitude test to qualify for the prep school and get two tries at a General Educational Development certificate. If they still can’t pass, the Army will release them from their contract, Sanderson said.
He said the Army prefers those who graduate from high school on their own because it demonstrates ‘‘tenacity.’’ But the reality of current graduation rates has the Army pressed to find an alternative, Sanderson explained.
Swarner, a native of Baton Rouge, La., left school in the ninth grade. Now 20, he dreams of becoming a combat engineer.
With the small classes, hovering teachers and a disciplined schedule, Swarner said he’s learning quickly.
‘‘The teachers here are helping a lot,” he said. “My best class is English, the hardest is probably the math.’’
With the GED behind them, Swarner and his classmates will enter basic training at Fort Jackson, where more than half of all incoming male soldiers and more than 80 percent of female recruits go through basic combat training. Others will go to one of the Army’s three other basic training sites.
Those entering prep school have signed on for a two- to four-year stint, just like any new recruit.
‘‘We have two missions: get the GED and prepare them physically and mentally for basic training,’’ said the school’s commander, Capt. Brian Gaddis.
Last October, Army officials said they intended to expand the force by adding 74,000 soldiers by 2010, with the active duty force growing to a total of 547,000.
But Sanderson said the Army’s own studies show that only 3-in-10 people ages 17 to 24 are eligible to enlist, with the remainder barred by health or legal issues, or the failure to earn a high school diploma or equivalent.
A study issued by the National Priorities Project released in January found that while the Army has a goal that 90 percent of recruits be high school graduates, it hadn’t met that percentage since 2004. In the 2007 budget year, the Project found that only 71 percent of soldiers entering the service had graduated.
Gaddis said he knows his students might have quit high school, but believes that shouldn’t be held against them. He added that the school is a move to reach those who have been left behind, not to attract those who are less qualified or lower than the Army’s standards.
‘‘These kids may have quit at some point, but the big thing is, a lot of people have quit on them,’’ Gaddis said. ‘‘We are not going to allow them to quit.’’