For about 1,000 cadets in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Wichita high schools, physical fitness is part of the course load.
Students participate in miliary-style conditioning exercises and learn about health, hygiene, nutrition, military history and skills such as orienteering.
“They’re in excellent shape. … These kids will tell you they stay in much better physical condition when they’re enrolled in JROTC,” said Col. Robert Hester, coordinator of the program for the Wichita district.
But so far the class – in Wichita, at least – doesn’t count toward the physical education credit required for high school graduation.
David Dennis, chairman of the Kansas Board of Education and a retired Air Force colonel, thinks it should.
Dennis plans to propose a state rule that would require districts to count two years of JROTC class as one physical education credit. He said the JROTC program – in 20 Kansas high schools, including seven in Wichita – “clearly aligns with our goals for physical education,” and that counting it as P.E. would allow more students to participate.
Dennis noted a recent federal report that said only about one-fourth of Kansas high school graduates are eligible to go into the military. Most aren’t physically fit, can’t pass the entrance test or have committed offenses that disqualify them from military service, he said.
“This isn’t about recruiting anybody for the military,” Dennis said.
“I’m just saying the P.E. requirements we have in place haven’t been hugely successful for a lot of our kids. We know that. … So why would we be so blind and so paranoid as to say we can’t touch that P.E. credit or allow anything else to count?”
Wichita district leaders have argued for years that the JROTC program, while worthwhile, doesn’t conform to approved health and physical education standards and shouldn’t substitute for regular P.E. classes.
“There’s a difference between physical activity and physical education,” said Susanne Smith, division director of learning services for Wichita schools.
She said parts of the P.E. curriculum, including lessons on health and human sexuality, are not covered in JROTC classes. In addition JROTC instructors, who are retired military officers, are not licensed teachers as required by state standards, Smith said.
“It’s a good program,” she said. “In our minds it just doesn’t meet the standards that are covered and that need to be covered to meet the P.E. requirement.”
In 2006, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education issued a position statement opposing substitutions, waivers and exemptions for required physical education.
“Classes and activities that provide physical activity (e.g. marching band, ROTC, cheerleading, school and community sports) have important but distinctly different goals than physical education,” the statement said.
“Any opportunity for students to participate in sustained periods of meaningful physical activity can be valuable for their health and fitness, but these activities do not provide the content of a comprehensive, standards-based physical education program and thus should not be allowed to fulfill a physical education requirement.”
In Kansas, the decision about whether to grant physical education credit for JROTC – and how much to grant – is up to local school boards.
According to data presented to the state Board of Education last week, three Shawnee Mission high schools grant P.E. credit for the class. At Garden City High School, JROTC meets requirements for P.E., fine arts and speech. At Derby High, it counts as half a social studies credit.
In Wichita, though, each year of JROTC counts only as an elective, one of seven required to graduate.
Dennis, a former business teacher at Wichita North High School, has lobbied about two years for JROTC to meet the P.E. requirement, in part because he wants to make sure declining enrollment doesn’t endanger the programs. To keep their federal certification and funding, JROTC programs at large high schools have to enroll at least 100 students.
A Marine JROTC program at Northeast Magnet High has about 90 members, Hester said. It kept its certification because Northeast is smaller than other high schools.
The U.S. Department of Defense provides most of the funding, materials and equipment for JROTC programs, Hester said. School districts pay half the salary for each instructor, which is the difference between that person’s retired and active-duty pay.
Participation in Wichita JROTC programs has remained strong over the past several years – about 1,000 high-schoolers and 1,400 middle-schoolers – even after Wichita raised its graduation requirements. The Wichita school board voted in February 2011 to increase required credits from 22 to 23, adding one semester of financial literacy and a semester of career or technical education.
Dennis, the state board chairman, said that as core credit requirements for graduation increase and schools devote more time to reading and math, students often must cut back on elective courses to just one or two a year. That doesn’t leave much room to fit in JROTC.
Counting JROTC as the physical education credit could allow more students to participate in a program that has been shown to better connect them to school and increase academic performance, he said.
Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said the state board sets guidelines for districts as to which classes can meet which requirements, but so far it has never issued the type of mandate Dennis is proposing.
“We put a lot of best practices out there, but … it’s highly unlikely for us to mandate what type of credit is accepted,” DeBacker said. “That traditionally has been a local board’s decision.”
Dennis, who will leave the state board in December, said, “I understand the concern that some of the P.E. teachers have, because this is possibly taking something away from them.”
But he thinks the JROTC program clearly meets the standards for health and physical education and should count toward that requirement.
“I believe in local control,” Dennis said. “But I also believe in doing what’s right for all our kids in the state of Kansas.”