Junior ROTC offers lessons in leadership, service

March 21, 2012

Among the career education courses offered in high school, Junior ROTC stands out.

At Herndon High School, about 100 students are enrolled in the Navy’s Junior ROTC program. Once a week, students dress in military-style uniforms representing the program for which they are enrolled.

Countywide, there are eight high schools with Junior ROTC: five aligned with the Army, one with the Air Force and one with the Marine Corps. Herndon is the only county school with a Navy program.

“I think people in ROTC are more goal-driven. I think it’s more about organizing your priorities,” said Sapna Singh, 18, a Herndon senior and lieutenant in the Junior ROTC. Seniors meet for Junior ROTC classes every day, while freshmen, sophomores and juniors meet every other day.

One of the major lessons students learn is discipline, said senior Breanna Donahue, 17.

“We know when to be serious and when to flip the switch,” she said.

Within the Navy’s Junior ROTC curriculum are lessons on maritime history, maritime sciences, leadership and citizenship, said Cmdr. Richard Cassara, a senior naval science instructor who teaches at Herndon High School.

“The military’s stated goal is to provide a citizenship program in the school,” Cassara said. “It’s important for people to know what our military does. It’s important that they get exposed to military-type things as a citizen.

“It’s not a recruiting program. I don’t even talk to a student about military options until their junior year. Then we have ‘the talk.’ ”

During the Great Recession, Cassara said, he was having “the talk” more often with students, as many of them were increasingly concerned about paying for college. ROTC offers scholarships to college students.

“There was more of a hard look at things, especially in 2008,” said Cassara, who has worked at the school since 2000. “We do it every year with college planning. We say, ‘You need to talk to Mom and Dad about this because the money they had set aside for college might not be there anymore.’ ”

Despite this increased interest, Cassara said, enrollment has decreased, causing concern about the future of Herndon’s Junior ROTC program.

“We’re actually in a little bit of trouble here. The unit has been around since 1983. We’ve graduated a lot of kids. . . . These kids have done very well here,” he said, adding the program is not meeting enrollment numbers required by the Navy. “We have seen a couple dips in numbers. The Navy has put everyone on notice, saying we’re facing budget cuts and there are many people on our waiting list for programs like this.”

Currently, enrollment is 98 students; the program needs 100 students.

Although the program gives students interested in military careers a peek at what service life is like, it is really aimed at bettering students now, Cassara said. It is open to all students.

The program can help align students with college scholarships provided through ROTC programs, he said.

“If they are going in that direction [of military service], this is really good for them, and if not it’s still good for them,” Cassara said. “We’ve seen kids who are gung-ho to go into the military and now are not so much.”

In class, fellow instructor John Maness tells students, “There are two grades in the Navy: satisfactory and unsatisfactory.”

Knowing the difference, instructors said, is part of acknowledging personal responsibility.

“Reinforcing things like personal responsibility, time management, prioritization. . . . There are important lessons,” Cassara said. “We lay some leadership things on them that I don’t think they get anywhere else.”

Many students said they were not planning on enlisting right out of high school or even after college.

“Even if you don’t go into the military, it teaches you great core values,” said senior Mark Frost, 17, Junior ROTC student commander.

“It will change you,” said fellow senior Alex Polk, 17, a lieutenant commander. Learning about the role the U.S. military plays is one of the lessons students said was important to them.

Students also said they agreed with a recent School Board decision to offer recognition to those students who were enlisting for military service right out of high school. The School Board voted March 8 that all county public high schools recognize during commencement ceremonies those graduating seniors who have enlisted. How the schools recognize those graduating, future-service members is up to individual schools.

“It’s awesome. I think they deserve being recognized for it,” Donahue said.

“Some people want to protect and serve their country so there’s a strong sense of pride,” Frost said. “I wouldn’t mind seeing them — when they call their names to get their diploma and they go up on stage — giving them a shout-out that they are going to serve.”

To learn about Junior ROTC programs in Fairfax County public schools, visit www.fcps.edu/is/cte/jrotccourses.shtml.

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