U-46 looks at offering ROTC: Why some suburban high schools say it's needed
A group of Elgin veterans say they support Elgin Area School District U-46 potentially offering training for military careers as a pathway for high schoolers.
U-46 administrators are evaluating expanding high school career academies, including the merits of offering a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program. Supporters say such training programs are an important part of civic education.
"The primary goal of the program is to motivate young people to be better citizens," said Craig Essick, commander of American Legion Post 57 in Elgin, an Army veteran and a retired Streamwood police officer. "We cannot think of a better goal for U-46 students as they pursue an education and learn the true meaning of citizenship and service to our communities."
A few suburban high schools -- Aurora, Bolingbrook, Waukegan and Wheeling -- offer Air Force, Army or Navy JROTC programs. The programs are overseen by branches of the military, which provide structured curriculum and certified instructors.
While some U-46 parents have said they fear such a program would lead to targeting minorities and low-income students who don't have other options for military recruitment, instructors at schools that already have programs say they are not a military recruitment tool but rather provide valuable life skills' training.
Wheeling High School houses a magnet Navy JROTC program for Northwest Suburban High School District 214's six high schools. The program started in 1969 and runs year-round.
Enrollment spiked to roughly 170 students in the 2005-06 school year but has tapered off to 123 students, said Jeff Morse, a retired Navy lieutenant commander and Desert Shield veteran who has been teaching JROTC for 24 years.
Morse said the program mainly builds students' confidence, organization and leadership skills. Only two out of 18 seniors who graduated from it in May have gone into the military.
For some students, such programs provide a sense of belonging and community just like other high school clubs.
"There are some kids who just may not be athletes, or science club doesn't spark them," Morse said. "But they get into ROTC and they find something they can be good at, and it just changes them. It's got something to offer to just about anyone with any background."
Students also learn about military organization, history, international law, current events, aerodynamics and physical sciences. The course is capped off by a leadership seminar the final year. Military-style drills in uniform, physical training and extracurricular activities -- including academic, marksmanship, cyber patriot and robotics teams -- are par for the course.
Illinois has 14 Navy JROTC units with more than 3,000 cadets enrolled in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. Nationally, 61 percent of Navy JROTC graduates pursue postsecondary education and 47 percent say they intend to enter military service, said Cmdr. Frederick Martin, spokesman for the Naval Service Training Command based near North Chicago.
West Aurora High School's Air Force JROTC is among 14 statewide and one of two in the suburbs. The program, now in its fifth year, is growing with 180 cadets enrolled.
Community service, character building and discipline are core values of the program, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Erik Pettyjohn, senior aerospace science instructor.
"We do have high expectations of behavior," Pettyjohn said. "It offers a lot of structure. We basically use Air Force customs and traditions to instill good character, honesty, integrity, service and excellence. ... A lot of times students won't get that type of instruction, mentorship in other areas."
The curriculum primarily focuses on aerospace sciences and leadership education, as well as health and wellness. Some students get a taste of riding in an airplane for free offered by local flying clubs. Students also learn how to handle stress and adversity, applying for college and job interviews.
Pettyjohn said about 95 percent of cadets complete high school in four years and between 5 and 10 percent of graduates go into the military.
Originally, JROTC units were about military training to prepare candidates for the Army Reserves, said Carter Bell, a retired Army major and academic coordinator for Waukegan High School's Army JROTC program, which marks 100 years in 2019.
By the 1980s, the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement had transformed it into a citizenship program, he said.
Waukegan has more than 600 students in its cadet corps -- the second-largest in the nation. Service learning projects and leadership development are big parts of the program.
"The purpose of a leader is to serve others," Bell said. "Last year, we contributed over 5,000 hours of community service to Waukegan. High school (Army) ROTC cadets contributed more than 7 million hours of community service to the nation."
Students help with park cleanups, serve as guides for 5K races, help with Lions Club pancake breakfasts and volunteer at parent-teacher conferences for middle and elementary schools.
"We are just trying to give kids options," Bell said. "It's just another way of getting kids to connect with school and to graduate ... 84 percent of our graduating cadets go to college."