Articles - January 2021

Randolph-Macon Academy

Where Challenges Are Met, Responsibility Is Learned, Leaders Are Nurtured, and Dreams Take Flight

It is a small coeducational college-preparatory boarding school for grades 6-12 tucked in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on a hill at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Front Royal, Virginia. Randolph-Macon Academy is a place of excellence, a place that challenges students in a caring atmosphere that builds confidence, nurtures curiosity, encourages creativity, and instills courage – “grit” they call it here, the power to meet adversity and turn it to advantage.

Front Royal, Virginia – historically a dividing line between the British colonies and territories beyond the mountains to the west, hence the “Royal Front,”  and later a key transportation junction in the westward expansion of the United States linking all directions of the compass – is just 70 miles from Washington, D.C.  Distance means that during the week the campus operates as a community without the distractions of larger areas and with the feel of the small towns that are so much a part of American life.  On weekends a wealth of world-class recreational and educational opportunities is available within reasonable driving distances.

R-MA is straight-forward and determined about its mission.  “We are committed,” the school asserts, “to shaping good character through positive leadership, professional conduct, and service. We work to ensure each student is self-reliant, respected, and recognized as a unique individual, embraced in a family environment.”

Randolph-Macon Academy has also been a military school since 1917, when the United States entered World War I, and adopted the United States Air Force Junior ROTC program in 1975.  All students, they are called cadets, in the upper school (grades 9-12) are required to participate in AFJROTC.  Yet, says R-MA’s President, Brigadier General David C. Wesley, USAF, Retired, “We are not a traditional military school.  We are a college-preparatory school.  The military program is how we teach the values that underpin the academic program.”

“Only about one out of ten of our graduates will actually wear the uniform of the United States military or the military of their home country,” notes General Wesley.  “When I work with a student,” he continues, “I do not assume that I am talking to someone who will serve in uniform.  I do expect that they will become good citizens and the kind of people I would like to have as neighbors.”


From Brigadier General to High School Principal

Therein lies the bridge between being a general officer in the Air Force and being president of a college preparatory school with strong boarding school and JROTC components, or as General Wesley’s modest demeanor would put it, “I’m essentially a high school principal.”  It is a big jump from flag officer status to heading a private secondary school.   Wesley laughingly admits that he was driving himself and his wife crazy during his post-Air Force job search because he was not used to not working.  More important, however, was his desire “to work in a place that is consistent with my personal values, or at least the values that I tried to live by on active duty.  That is why R-MA appeals to me.”

Leadership, Wesley observed as he approached Air Force retirement, does not spring from rank or defined authority but from the power of character.  That power, in turn, requires courage.  “If you’re ever in doubt as to what is the ‘right thing,’ choose the harder path.” Such character requires a leader to take action “based on the fact that you care more about your people than you do about yourself or your career.”  Finally, Wesley insists, “Remember that everything you do in a leadership position is visible and meaningful to your people. You want to teach them the right things to do through what you do and refrain from doing.”

Brigadier General Wesley served as an active duty Air Force officer for over 26 years, retiring after a distinguished career in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.  He began his military training as an ROTC Cadet at the University of Alabama, where he received a B.S. in business administration and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.  Upon his graduation from the University of Alabama School of Law, he received his Juris Doctor degree and was promoted to First Lieutenant.

In the course of his military career, General Wesley also attended the Air Command and Staff College and earned a Master of Science degree in national resource strategy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.  He is admitted to the bar in Alabama and before the bar of the Alabama Supreme Court, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Duty assignments have taken him to air bases and various commands across the United States and across the world ranging from Japan to the Middle East and Southwest Asia.  Wesley served as Counsel to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Intelligence Oversight Board at the White House during the Clinton administration, earning the Presidential Service Badge.   “The bulk of that job,” he observes, “involved our covert action program, which is a very sensitive, part of the national intelligence structure.  I was an Air Force Captain then.  I had not had enough experience in the way Washington, D.C. works to fully realize that some of the most important things the U.S. government does are based on decisions that are made by ordinary people.  That assignment was humbling because I realized how much of our national security structure really does depend on the U.S. military to do what we tell it to do, but only what we tell it to do.”

General Wesley’s career also included assignments as a legal educator and administrator.  He served at various times as Chief of the Education and Training Branch in the Office of the Judge Advocate General at Air Force Headquarters, as an instructor in the Military Justice Division of the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s School, Chief of the Professional Development Division of the Judge Advocate General at Air Force headquarters, and subsequently as Commandant of the Judge Advocate General’s School at Maxwell AFB in Alabama.

These experiences, he believes, carry over to his leadership role at Randolph-Macon Academy. “In both lines of work,” he reflects, “you’ve got to be able to do two things.  First, you have to be able to ask hard questions.  Then, you have to be able to use those questions to drive a small group of people or one person to the crux of the matter.”  “In law school,” he adds, “they tell you that clients will come to you with a complex story that spills out of them in a disorganized fashion.  Lawyers are supposed to be good at picking through the pieces of that story and reorganizing them into a coherent strategy.  That is exactly what a principal does.  That is what a commander’s advisor does.  That is what a parent expects.”


Pandemic Problem Solving and Boarding School Environment   

Confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic, Randolph-Macon Academy has faced the same quandaries about bringing students to campus and holding in-person classes that schools across the world have faced.  In the spring of 2020 they opted to move classes to a virtual format, but the school’s website includes a banner at the top of its home page noting that “R-MA is ‘on-campus’ for Fall 2020.” 

General Wesley’s search for a coherent strategy to confront the challenges of the pandemic was thorough and painstaking.  But he recalls, “As soon as I could be assured by our staff that there was a safe way to bring students on campus, it wasn’t a hard decision.   We implemented a comprehensive testing program and mask wearing is mandatory everywhere and in virtually every situation on campus.”  Reinforcing those safety precautions was the realization that: “I knew that we do our best work through the boarding process.”

Contrary to the sometimes negative stereotypes of boarding schools as privileged refuges for the wealthy or remedial facilities for students with behavioral or academic difficulties, General Wesley makes a strong positive case for the benefits of R-MA’s boarding school environment.  “Students who come here,” he argues, “get a secret weapon that many actually don’t realize at first.”  That secret weapon is self discipline.  R-MA students/cadets have scheduled study halls and live among each other in a dormitory environment that is closely aligned to what they will see in college.  They have already confronted the need to organize their time, prioritize their study patterns to emphasize more work on the subjects that are difficult for them, and make tough decisions about how to conduct themselves on and off campus.

“These are things that undermine some of the best students in the world when they go to college,” notes General Wesley.  “Our students have already learned these skills at R-MA.  They have already made mistakes in these areas at lower cost, under our supervision, and have been corrected.  Now, they have the self-discipline to make better decisions for themselves.”


The Power of Rise and Overcoming Obstacles

At the heart of Randolph-Macon Academy’s community is a philosophy referred to as “The Power of Rise.”  That phrase appears on the institution’s logotype and is featured on its website.   It represents a promise to students and really to the entire community.  In one sense, the idea ties directly to R-MA’s special emphasis on aviation.  Any aircraft requires lift in order to overcome the force of gravity and achieve flight. The result of that bit of aerodynamic physics is RISE. 

General Wesley explains this concept in more human terms.  “I cannot think how many times I’ve stumbled in my career,” he reflects, “and I’ve always wanted to say that I could get myself up and try again.  The ‘power of rise’ is really not about falling but about getting back up after a fall and rising again.  Our graduates do not quit.  They do not even entertain the thought of quitting.”

“We are trying to give our middle school students and our upper school cadets the sense that it is not wrong to fail.  It is wrong not to try.  It is not fatal to fail.  You can overcome failure in so many different ways.”  “Our brand,” explains General Wesley, “is that we are going to teach you how to overcome obstacles.  Whatever you are afraid of.  Whatever is hardest for you.  Whatever you are least able to do today.  We are going to help you confront that and overcome it and make it a strength.


Project Based Education

The focus at Randolph-Macon Academy is always on achievement whether in or out of the classroom.  While there is a strong emphasis on the STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – courses, language arts and literature as well as the fine arts are equally critical components of the program.  Academic courses are often intentionally intertwined and overlapping across disciplines.  The curriculum emphasizes what the faculty describes as “a project-based” learning environment. “We do not want our students to learn how to do math for its own sake,” General Wesley explains.  “We want them to learn math skills in order to create something that did not exist before the student learned how to solve this math problem.  That takes form in the things we do in engineering and computer science and the things we do with flight now – particularly with drones and artificial intelligence.”

“Because we are a project- based learning culture,” Wesley enthuses, “we want you to take the growing sum of your skills and make something new.  Often that can bring STEM skills together with the arts.”  An example:  R-MA has a fabrication lab that includes a variety of engineering tools available to the students.  Students in a World Religions class, together with their instructor, designed a graphic intended to show the interrelationships between the world’s faiths.  The idea was to illustrate the ways in which different faith traditions across the world have very different practices but often have shared and overlapping values. 

The graphic the class designed was illustrative, but the students came up with the idea of turning their graphic into a working model.  Using the fabrication lab’s equipment, including a laser cutter and other tools, these students built a large system of interlocking gears that mounts on the wall and shows the world’s great religions across time.  What emerged was essentially a machine that explored the world’s multiple religious, as one gear turns others move as well demonstrating the ways in which various faith traditions influence each other.  “That,” smiles General Wesley, “demonstrates how students can be encouraged to translate a core idea into something that meshes art, mechanics, engineering and faith.” That melding of the disciplines and the cross-fertilization of ideas as well as skills between STEM courses and the arts is an everyday occurrence at R-MA.


International Students

Three things make Randolph-Macon Academy particularly attractive to international students and their families.  The school provides exceptional educational opportunities for students in an atmosphere designed to nurture learning and develop leadership skills.  Proximity to Washington, D.C. and convenient transportation links to New York City and the world via Amtrak and Washington’s two airports – Dulles and Reagan National, mean that the school is accessible to diplomatic families, civil servants posted at a wide variety of international organizations or government agencies – including the United Nations, and the international business community.  The boarding experience when coupled with R-MA’s rigorous routines and its personalized academic support programs enhances international students’ preparation for, access to, and projected success at American colleges and universities.

International students represent roughly one-quarter of R-MA’s student body. “We are blessed to have students from more than a dozen different countries around the world in any given year.” notes General Wesley.  “They come to us from Europe, across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean,” he adds, “and we are making a concerted effort to expand our international outreach and recruiting, not an easy task but worth all the efforts we are making.”

“When I have gone through professional military education in the Air Force,” Wesley recalls, “the international officers included in those training programs make the experience vastly richer for Americans whose opportunities to travel and interact with the rest of the world have been limited.  That is even more true at R-MA.  Our international students deeply enrich the experience that our American students have here.”

Randolph-Macon Academy integrates the life experiences of the international students into the life of student body and provides needed support to assure their success.  ESL – English as a Second Language - is foundational for international students and is provided as part of the student’s curriculum in order to underpin language comprehension, develop fluency and support the transition to English-language instruction.  

International students are encouraged to make presentations about their home country, its culture and customs to the whole student body during school-wide assemblies. Not only are these learning opportunities for the student body, General Wesley points out, but they also give the international students “the opportunity to be connected to their ‘home,’ to share excitement about the culture and history of their country, and to express pride in their national identity.”  Just as important, Wesley adds, is that “these presentations become the subject of informal conversations between students that drill more deeply into what life is like for our students from around the world.”


Flight Training Opportunities – Winged Aircraft and Drones

Randolph-Macon Academy takes pride in its flight training programs and the possibility that students can graduate with both a high school diploma and a private pilot’s license, should they choose to do so. Private pilot ground school is offered and is designed to prepare interested students in core areas – flight operations, meteorology, interpreting weather data, aircraft performance, navigation, federal aviation regulations, basic aerodynamics, airplane systems and components, and aviation physiology  - required to take the Federal Aviation Administration Written Examination for the Private Pilot Certificate.

While R-MA has flight simulators for student training, actual flight hours must be paid for separately and in addition to tuition and fees.  Individualized flight training is offered in aircraft owned by R-MA and is taught by Academy instructors.  Typically, earning flight certification requires between 60-75 hours of inflight instruction and supervision before soloing.  You must be 16-years old to solo and 17-years old to obtain the private pilot certificate.  International students may take flight training but must undergo a background check and gain approval from the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), a process that can take several weeks.

Randolph-Macon Academy also offers training in flight operations for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or “drones,” designed to prepare students to take the Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 written examination and earn a Remote Pilot Certificate.  General Wesley’s pride in this program is evident.  “Our drone instructor,” he notes, “is teaching our students about the myriad applications for drones, not just the mechanics of flying them.  Our drone students,” Wesley enthuses, “are helping the Smithsonian do a forestry survey of its nearby arboretum.  They even deliver pizzas here using drones.  How cool is that!”


High Flight and Falcon Scholars

While only a limited number of  R-MA graduates will actually enter military service, there is great interest in the Academy from students who express interest either in attending college at one of the service academies or entering  an ROTC program at the college or university of their choice, often as a way to help pay for college.  “We try to make prospective students and parents aware of the exceptionally high standards that are required at the service academies,” notes General Wesley, “where nomination is required and only about 8% of applicants are accepted.”

High Flight is specifically designed for students who want the possibility of a military career.  “We built ‘High Flight,’ General Wesley explains, “to say, whatever you think is expected of you, it will require still more.”  Students must meet rigorous academic and physical standards, be eligible for military service, apply to and be selected for the High Flight program.   They get up early and do a complex, heavy-duty workout 4-5 days a week designed to prepare them to meet the fitness test the service academies require.  They are held to higher academic standards. They are expected to assume leadership roles in the corps of cadets and to participate in other activities designed to instill self-discipline and to prepare them for officer candidacy.

There are only five schools in the United States that offer the “Falcon Scholars” program.  Randolph-Macon Academy is the only high school in that group.  Essentially, it offers a highly select group of high school graduates, those who just missed the selection cut-off point for entrance into the Air Force Academy, a “fifth year” of preparation for the Academy – one more year of maturity, one more year of academic achievement – with an academic scholarship from the Falcon Foundation.  The Air Force realized that they were turning away some top talent and saw that if these students could go to school for one more year - taking AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, AP Physics and a really hard physical conditioning program – they ended up in the top 25% of their Air Force Academy graduating class.

General Wesley notes with pride that, “Out of the Falcon Scholars group our acceptance rate to the Air Force Academy is about 95%.  Today, this little high school has more than 30 current Air Force cadets enrolled at Colorado Springs.  And, nobody has ever washed out; not one.  That’s hard to do, but that is what we are doing.”  He concludes with a grin, “Our Falcons run like deer and lift like giants!”


To Endure

General David Wesley is more than a retired military officer and an educational administrator; he is a leader and a visionary.  Just as flight lifts the spirit and broadens horizons, Wesley brings vision and inspiration to his institution.  He recognizes that the heart of any school is the fusion of people and opportunity combining to fulfill dreams.

To be sure, Randolph-Macon Academy provides exceptional educational programs that produce extraordinary results – 100% college acceptance, admission to leading colleges and universities in the United States and around the world, and multiple scholarship offers.  But, it is more.  It is a place of exploration and discovery where students nurture newly encountered interests and untapped talents. It is a community where the skills of leadership are taught, where integrity is foremost, and where service is an everyday reality.  It is a vision that sees beyond grades and test scores to encourage creative thinking, model collaborative problem-solving, and transform insight into innovation.

“Randolph-Macon Academy,” General Wesley explains, “endures because it is not a building or a group of individuals or a piece of equipment.  R-MA represents an idea that persists in the face of all challengers.  We seek to make a difference in an indifferent world.  We strive to become part of something larger than ourselves.  We endeavor to lead not for the sake of power, but to serve others, as we aim to develop a better world.”

     The reality of that “idea that persists,” avers General Wesley, is that “Students live here in an environment that will let them grow up without fear and without limitation on their future.  If we have given young people the potential to lead happy and successful lives, in whatever way those goals express themselves in their heart, then we’ve given them something far more than an education.”

FREE Digital Edition
See and read Diplomatic Connections Magazine
View Archived Digital Editions