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New FMS superintendent learning the ropes

Rick Zinser wanted the unvarnished truth. “What is the perception of Fishburne out there in the Waynesboro community?” Zinser asked me after we were done talking for our interview, turning the tables, as it were.
Col. Zinser was introduced as the president and 10th superintendent of Fishburne Military School on Feb. 1. He’s new to FMS and to Waynesboro, but the self-described “sponge” is trying to soak it all in as quickly as he can.

“This was a great opportunity to continue to serve with kids and make a difference in their lives and their families’ lives. That’s a challenge and an opportunity, and that’s what I’ve been doing since I got out of the Army. So the opportunity to come to Fishburne to do that was irresistible, and we made the decision very quickly and are very happy with it,” said Zinser, most recently the president at Massanutten Military Academy and a career Army man who served at the end of his stint in the active-duty military as the chief of staff and deputy commander for the U.S. Army Cadet Command.

He didn’t settle in Waynesboro to simply continue in the status quo at Fishburne, as our two-hour-long meeting that was as much if not more him interviewing me as me interviewing him might suggest. Zinser sees the military school expanding both its full-time and day-student base and building its community-service reputation in the Waynesboro-Augusta community.

He illustrated his thoughts to that end with a story about a student at New York Military Academy, where he previously served as commandant, whom he had suspended and assigned to a community-service project that ended up being life-changing.
“This kid was just a terror,” Zinser recalled before he assigned the student to a service stint with a local public library, which wrote a glowing letter back to Zinser about how the student had performed during the assigned time.

“The letter was all about how it was such a pleasure to have had this kid around and how he had been one of the best students they’d ever had,” Zinser recalled, and he heard the same thing from the library director when he called to make sure that there hadn’t been a mistake.

“A lot of parents send their kids to these kinds of schools because of the structure and discipline and the fact that we focus on leadership and character as well as organizational skills and study skills. And we put all that into a single whole-person package. And then the kid is ready to move on,” Zinser said.

The secondary-education years are for many teens “the pivotal point in their lives,” Zinser said. “If you don’t get that secondary education, and a sound secondary education, when you go to college, it’s just a miserable experience, and often a failed experience,” Zinser said.

“Parents are looking for a place to put their kids where they know their kids will be safe, where they know the kids are going to be cared for and looked after and educated and prepared for life. And that’s what these schools do. Not necessarily preparing them for the military, although the skills we give them would certainly prepare them for success not only in business life, but in the military as well,” Zinser said.

And that’s an important point, because harkening back to Zinser’s question of me – “What is the perception of Fishburne out there in the Waynesboro community?” – military schools, as we call them, are a lot more than the name would suggest.

“The mission is to train better citizens,” Zinser said. “At schools like Fishburne, you’ll find that a very small portion of the students actually go on to military colleges. And a very small portion go on active duty from here. These schools are all college-preparatory schools. They have a college-preparatory curriculum. They focus on that. We are really committed to giving the kids all the knowledges and all the skills and all the attitudes necessary to go to college and be successful.”

Speaking as one whose perception might mirror that of the general community here, I was somewhat aware of that, but still assumed going in to talking with Zinser that a fair number of Fishburne graduates ended up in the military every year.

“We have one or two cadets a year who end up going to one of the service acadamies, and then maybe one or two more a year who go to one of the private or state-supported military schools. And that’s out of anywhere from 35 to 45 graduates a year. And then out of any given class I would guess there’s two or three to decide to go on active duty in one of the branches of the service,” Zinser said.

“Right now, the college fund program that the military offers is pretty rich, and so a lot of kids after mom and dad have spent $20,000-plus a year sending them to a school like this getting that foundation education, they go off into the military and get a college fund and then after four or five years go back to school,” Zinser said.


– Story by Chris Graham