Issaquah High School ROTC is on chopping block

May 10, 2011

By Laura Geggel

The Navy Junior ROTC at Issaquah High School performs at a March school assembly. Unless the program raises its enrollment to more than 100 students, it could be canceled. By Don Borin/Stop Action Photography, www.donborin.com

Low enrollment cited as reason for possible elimination

After 39 years of camaraderie, learning and accomplishment, the Issaquah High School Navy Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps is facing the chopping block.

Unless the program can bring enrollment up to 100 students by Oct. 1, the U.S. Navy has announced it will close the unit by fall 2012. This year, Issaquah High has 70 students enrolled in its Navy Junior ROTC.

The numbers have decreased recently — in 2008, the program had 107 students; in 2009, there were 81 students; and at the beginning of 2010, there were 66 students.

Issaquah High is not the only school on tenterhooks — the Navy is cutting 19 programs nationwide at the end of this year. With only 59 students enrolled for next fall, district administrators fear Issaquah might be next in line to be cut.

“It’s a great program and we don’t like to cut units,” said Mike Miller, spokesman for Naval Service Training Command.

However, the U.S. Navy can’t continue to pay for programs that are not cost effective, and don’t reach at least 10 percent of the school, he said.

Issaquah’s students are stubbornly optimistic about their chances of surviving, and are recruiting at both the middle and high schools, hoping to increase their numbers.

“We’re not going anywhere,” senior Daniel Fine said.

Issaquah’s ROTC is holding a free fun day at the school May 14, complete with food, games, prizes and information. Students, parents and staff members will share their experiences and perform drills for the community.

Students — called cadets — spend an average of 15 hours volunteering in the community each year, but stereotypes still exist about ROTC. By employing their motto, “Learn to lead, choose to succeed,” cadets are working to save their program, both for themselves and for future students.

A history of junior ROTC

At one time, Issaquah School District’s three largest high schools had a junior ROTC program. Nationwide, there are more than 600 Navy Junior ROTC programs; Washington has 14.

Students can enter the four-year program at any point of their high school career. They learn about the values of citizenship, service to their country, personal responsibility and how to accomplish goals.

ROTC teaches cadets about life skills, including career planning, leadership, relationships, how to be an active and informed citizen, first aid and fitness. Along the way, cadets learn about naval history, geography and national defense.

“It’s the best choice of my high school career,” sophomore Taylor Stone said.

He said he enjoyed helping with security at school football games and directing traffic around the region, including at Salmon Days.

“It’s cool to be out behind the scenes and working with police,” Stone said. “It’s cool helping the community.”

Students need a respectable appearance, and Stone had to cut his long hair and wear a uniform every Wednesday so he could join the ROTC.

His instructor Larry Artman, said parents are astounded when their children, who have a messy room and never clean up after themselves, spend hours trying to reach perfection with their uniforms.

Cadets receive 1 credit each year they can apply toward physical education, or career and technical education.

The Navy pays for uniforms, and for half of the cost of the entire program. The district foots the other half of the bill, and the state pays the district money for the number of students taking a CTE credit. The district spends about $220,000 total for the Liberty and Issaquah High programs.

Junior ROTC at Skyline and Liberty

Skyline High School had an Air Force Junior ROTC program from 1997-2003, but it closed after a low student enrollment of 16. Students like senior Jordan Merritt chose to transfer from Skyline to Issaquah High, solely so she could take Navy Junior ROTC.

“The unit is just like a really big family,” Merritt said. “I’ve really made my best friends here.”

A shy student in middle school, Merritt now enjoys public speaking and leadership.

“I love this class,” she said. “I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”

Liberty’s program was initially joined with the program at Issaquah High, but the two split in 2001, when the Navy was able to spend more on extra programs, Liberty naval science instructor Al Torstenson said.

Even though its students give it rave reviews, Issaquah High’s enrollment is sinking — and middle school recruitment could be the culprit.

Typically, students from extracurricular classes visit the district’s five middle schools during lunch, giving the younger students a taste of what classes are available. This year, district administrators changed that format.

Instead of going to middle schools, electives set up booths at each high school information night for incoming freshman. The new configuration did not work well for Issaquah’s Navy Junior ROTC. In fact, Torstenson credited his program’s success to the strong ties it has with Maywood Middle School.

He and co-instructor Dan Joslin have their students send informational letters to every incoming freshman, and the ROTC color guard team performs at the Maywood campus.

“We canvass Maywood,” Torstenson said. “We get ourselves in there whenever we can.”

Once students enroll, they enter a family.

“My first chat with my freshmen is to welcome them aboard,” Torstenson said. “I say, ‘Please look around at the upperclassmen that you see in this room, and you will see your shipmates. That’s a special meaning in the Navy, a shipmate. If you’re in trouble, they will help you.’”

The ROTC stereotype

Another reason enrollment is falling could be related to misconceptions about the program.

The ROTC is not a recruiting program. Just like the national average, about 1 percent of Issaquah High students go into the U.S. armed forces.

“We teach leadership and we use the military model,” Torstenson said. “We’re not a military. We don’t want them to go into the military, frankly. We would rather they go on to higher education.”

Instead, using the Navy model, students learn about leadership, and everyone in the class earns a job and responsibility.

“We try to make it like a corporation, so they have job skills,” Artman said.

Students applying for leadership positions have to look sharp for their interviews and answer questions from their teachers and peers.

The line of command and responsibility is so carefully followed, that if a tree were to fall on him during class, “each kid knows what to do,” Artman said.

Cadets get other perks. They qualify for free SAT preparation and can apply for college scholarships.

If the Issaquah High program is canceled, students might be able to transfer to Liberty, but district administrators are hoping it doesn’t come to that.

“We’re doing all we can to keep the program afloat,” district Executive Director of Secondary Education Patrick Murphy said. “It’s got a long tradition at that school and it’s been a key connection for kids throughout the years at Issaquah High School. If we can, we’d like to keep it there.”

If you go

Issaquah Navy Junior ROTC Fun Day

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or lgeggel@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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Comments

6 Responses to “Issaquah High School ROTC is on chopping block”

  1. Concerned Parent on May 11th, 2011 10:52 am

    Interesting… My child just received a notice that Software Tech would no longer be offered at Issaquah High School. All students who have not yet taken the course to meet graduation requirements must pass a technical proficiency exam or pay out of pocket for the course in summer. Those who don’t do either are being moved to Navy ROTC – no other options permitted. After reading this article, I understand now why the school is forcing students into Navy ROTC.

    I have no issues with ROTC programs, but seriously question why a school would artificially inflate demand to retain the ROTC program. Let the program succeed or fail on its own.

  2. Former Unit Leader on May 11th, 2011 4:58 pm

    Concerned Parent –

    Though I was not aware of the cuts in the Software Tech program, I think there may be more than one side to the school’s choice to funnel those who fail to complete it into the ROTC program. While it may be the case that the school is taking advantage of the (unfortunately) failing Tech program to save another unfortunately failing program in these tough financial times, perhaps it is also doing so to salvage what funds it still can. The article mentioned that the state pays the school for its Career and Technical Education (CTE) class enrollment. If the school is unable to keep its Tech income, it can increase its ROTC income and still save at least one of these programs. It is certainly less expensive to fund ROTC (which gets the majority of its funding from the Navy and a large portion from cadet fundraising and parent contributions as well) than it is to maintain and upgrade the vast amount of computers and equipment alone needed for the Tech department. (Not that I do not value that spending as well; I am a Computer Science major. I speak strictly from a practical perspective)

    And besides, perhaps your student will gain some good experience in ROTC. I know a number of cadets who were placed there by accident, against their will, or simply as a means to transfer, and they became some of the strongest leaders and most involved cadets the unit has seen.

  3. Student Perspective on May 11th, 2011 7:38 pm

    I am very grateful that the community is able to be informed about the unit as well as it’s current dilemma. Being a member of ROTC myself, I have gained countless lessons that I will use beyond my high school career and I wish other students and parents would see that aspect of this program. The instructors are mentors to me and the other cadets are family, I would hate to lose them.

  4. erika on May 11th, 2011 11:09 pm

    Wow I can’t believe they might cut NJROTC. This was my favorite class in high school. I was in it from 2004-2007. I got so much out of it, it helped me become more responsible, more outgoing, stronger physically and emotionally, and it was my family for those 4 years. I really hope you cadets keep this program going! It was such an amazing class!!!!!! I know you guys can do it!

  5. Jessica Murray on May 12th, 2011 3:38 pm

    When I read this article it brought tears to my eyes and broke my heart. I joined the AFJROTC program at Skyline High School as a freshman, I spent 2 years in that program and made many friendships there that would carry me through the most difficult time of my life. The “cadets” in that program and the instructors supported me in a way no other could, they became my family and helped keep my head up. At the end of my Sophomore year the program was cut and I instantly took the opportunity to transfer and join Issaquah’s JROTC unit.
    It was there I learned even more about what JROTC could offer a person, even outside the military. They continued to provide structure and discipline and kept me out of trouble in my upperclassmen years. It was here in this program that I met my now husband. Both of us spent 4 years in ROTC and neither of us went onto a military career, but we did obtain a strong sense of self awareness and responsibility that we never would have received anywhere else. We had friends in a huge school where otherwise we would have been lost. ROTC was the best part of my high school experience, and the thing I miss from it. To cut this program would be a mistake, one the Issaquah School District allowed to happen already once before.
    The Issaquah High School Navy program provides so much more than I think most people realize, and it has deep roots within the community. It would be a shame and a very sad moment for the school, the community and the cadets who would lose so much more than a program or a class.

  6. Marina Ellis on May 13th, 2011 2:55 pm

    Well, the program is not able to advertise the way it used to so that is why the numbers have drastically gone down in the past 4 years. The district doesn’t allow them to go to middle schools for the class fairs like they used to, and that was where I found out I wanted to be in NJROTC. There has been a fear like this in the past when I was in the unit, and it has always been the same: keep the numbers above 100 and the unit wont be cut. It’s just getting harder to get people interested these days.

    It impacted my life more than any other class and as Jessica and Erika said, we were a family, and a lot of us are still friends outside of high school. It taught me very important values about life that you can’t learn within most other high school programs. If I hadn’t been in JROTC during high school, I don’t even know where I would be in my life right now, that is how much it impacted me. It would be SO sad to lose this program that has had a positive impact on most people involved in it. Not only that, the instructors dedicate their lives to it, Richard Demarco is still an important person to us all and has impacted more lives than he or the school realizes.

    I hope to see some past cadets at Fun Day on Saturday- I know I’ll be there to show my support for the program and let Top know we still care and want this program to succeed!!

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