New London - When the U.S. Coast Guard Academy offered her a place at a military preparatory school instead of accepting her directly into the academy, Tahnee Zaccano was torn.
Zaccano didn't want to be a year behind her high school friends and she was waiting to hear from the Naval Academy.
Ultimately she decided if prep school was the way to join the Coast Guard, she would do it.
Now a first-class cadet - a senior- at the academy, Zaccano said she realizes spending a year at the Marion Military Institute in Alabama was "a gift" that kept her out of academic and disciplinary trouble during her academy career.
Zaccano, 22, grew up in Harrisburg, Pa. and worked on a sheep and llama farm.
"By the time I got to the academy, I knew what my life priorities were," she said. "I had figured myself out and grown up."
Class sizes at the academy are shrinking as record numbers of officers stay in the service. Each year only about 10 percent of students who complete an application are accepted.
Yet Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, the academy superintendent, has no plans to diminish the prep school program, which is officially called the Coast Guard Academy Scholar Program.
Historically, about 15 percent of students in each class, or between 40 and 60 cadets, are prep school graduates. Stosz expects that percentage to stay roughly the same for future classes.
The program is one way the academy can recruit an athlete so a sports team will have enough players, a piccolo player for the band, or a minority student so the school will be diverse, Stosz said. Students from areas of the country that aren't heavily represented at the academy, including New London, have been sent to prep school.
These students either had grades or test scores that were just short of the academy's standards or went to high schools that didn't offer the courses in which they need a foundation, such as calculus and physics, she added.
The academy, Stosz said, is looking for well-rounded leaders, not just scholars.
Stosz said she would pick the football player who is an Eagle Scout over the student with only a perfect SAT score. It's important to maintain the academy's many sports and clubs because they build character and leadership skills and draw prospective students to the school, she added.
"Other schools like Connecticut College or Yale, they aren't hiring their graduates. They want the highest SAT scores," she said. "We're hiring our graduates. They need to have the potential to be a great leader."
Academy graduates serve for five years in the Coast Guard. A year in prep school helps these students who have potential succeed in a science, technology, engineering and math-based curriculum, Stosz said.
"We don't have the option of putting kids on a five- or six-year plan and letting them slip to a softer subject. It's a STEM program," she said a reference to the subjects in the curriculum.
Help with math
Hayley Smith, 20, was the company commander in New London High School's Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program but she struggled in math on the SAT.
Lukas Laplante, 22, of Leeds, Mass., played soccer, basketball and baseball and volunteered in the community during high school, but he didn't take calculus or advanced chemistry and physics.
Smith went to the Marion Military Institute. Laplante went to the New Mexico Military Institute. At prep school the students take college-level science, math and English classes. The instructors help them develop better study habits and improve their fitness. They must retake either the SAT or ACT and do well on the test.
"Academics are so different in high school. I worked hard and did my homework but I didn't really need to study. I didn't know how," Smith said.
She said prep school gave her a second chance. She improved her SAT score dramatically and is now a freshman cadet.
For Laplante, who is now a junior, prep school was his introduction to the military lifestyle.
"Being exposed to the military experience for an entire year helped exponentially," he said. "It not only helped with the military side of things at the academy. It took all that stress and all those worries away and let me focus on my academics more than I would've before."
Smith and Laplante arrived at the academy with friends from prep school, which they said made adjusting to life at the academy much easier.
Most of the students who attend prep school move on to the academy.
Brendan McNeil and Patrick Hanrahan, who are both 19 and graduated last year from the magnet school program at New London High School, are at the Georgia Military College now. Hanrahan said it was a relief to get into prep school instead of being turned down.
"They want the whole package, someone who is athletic, personable, active in the community. And you have to be intelligent on top of that," said Hanrahan, who was recruited to play soccer. "As a kid I knew I wanted to go to the academy and I did everything I could to make myself the best applicant I could be."
McNeil said he's working hard to get to the academy next year.
"Going to the academy isn't easy," McNeil added. "If it was easy, everybody would do it."
Laplante said he thinks the academy should absolutely keep the scholar program going.
"Looking back at it, I wasn't ready academically, even though I may have thought I was," said Laplante, who plays baseball and is doing well in his classes. "Going to prep school really helped me get to where I needed to be. And I know for a fact I wouldn't be as successful as I am now here if it wasn't for that extra year."
Zaccano rows on the crew team and is involved in nearly every club at the academy. She is one of the presidents of Cadets Against Sexual Assault and she helped lead the summer training program.
"One of the best-kept secrets of the Coast Guard Academy is this prep school opportunity," she said. "I would recommend, if someone got the opportunity, not to hesitate and to take it. I'm so glad I did. I met my best friends through prep school and it has been invaluable to my Coast Guard career."