The Leadership program in Wichita middle schools could be a model for a program that top Army and education officials want to take nationwide. Wichita is one of a handful of districts in the country that offers programs based on Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps curriculum to middle school students.
Army leaders and the National Association of School Boards are collaborating on developing a "JROTC-plus" program, which would use the high school JROTC structure to create a program for middle-schoolers, said Army JROTC director Col. John Vanderbleek.
"We want to reach students at that age before they make decisions that put them at risk," he said.
That's why Vanderbleek came last month from Fort Monroe, Va., to Wichita schools to see for himself.
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He said the Army plans to fund a pilot program next school year, and it will most likely be an existing program, possibly Wichita.
The Leadership program was started 12 years ago on a slim budget by JROTC supervisor and retired Army Col. Robert Hester. Local leaders said federal money could improve an already successful program.
"I was very impressed with the ability of Col. Hester to establish a program in 12 schools and find teachers and instructors with prior (military) service," Vanderbleek said.
Like the high school JROTC program, the middle school Leadership program uses a military structure to teach civics lessons.
At Brooks Technology and Arts Magnet Middle School, Leadership cadets pride themselves on being the only middle school students in the district wearing the Marine Corps uniform — and winning the City League drill championship three years in a row.
At the end of their class period, the students perform "individual drill downs" to keep their steps sharp.
Eighth-grader Isaiah Robinson barked orders at 30 of his classmates. Because it was Thursday, he wore a Marine dress uniform and impeccably so — except for a smudge on one of his ribbons that would be imperceptible to a civilian.
The Leadership program has helped him improve in football and basketball, Isaiah said, with "physical fitness and the leadership to go out there."
The standing students, who were dressed in anything from full uniforms to street clothes, followed his commands, or at least tried to. For some, it was hard to determine "left-face" from "right-face."
The primary purpose of the Leadership program is to connect students to school and encourage them to graduate, said Hester, who leads the program districtwide.
"Being a good cadet means being a good cadet in school," Hester said.
Of the eighth-grade students who were in the Leadership program in 2004, 80 percent graduated last school year, compared with a 64 percent graduation rate of their peers not in the program, Hester said.
"Lately, I've been getting F's," said Brooks eighth-grader Gabriel Munoz.
But he said after-school tutoring with his Leadership instructors helped him raise his science and social studies grades.
And that allows him to continue participating in the Leadership program's color guard, which is his favorite activity.
"It shows respect to our country," Gabriel said. "And I like to get out of class" to travel to other schools.
Paying for program
The national middle school program is in the early stages of planning, and oversight and money haven't been decided, said Donna Rice, who is in charge of curriculum for the JROTC program.
She said the U.S. Department of Education would most likely help fund the middle school program, possibly through some federal stimulus dollars marked for education.
That means the Wichita district might receive some federal money for its Leadership program in the future, instead of paying for all of it with local and state dollars.
Hester said the Leadership program runs on $10,000 a year from the district and $7 from each of the nearly 1,600 cadets.
Uniforms are often donated or bought at discounted prices, and the students have them tailored.
The high school JROTC program, including half of Hester's salary, is paid with mostly federal dollars.
Middle school principals have to give up a teaching position and classroom to start a Leadership program, he said.
When the program started in 1997, there was some opposition, in part because of concerns about military influence and recruiting, Hester said. The board voted 5-2 to pass it.
Not much opposition is expected to the national program in the works, Vanderbleek and Rice said.
The federal money for the program will be highly competitive, and Rice said schools with successful applications would have had to sell it to their communities before asking for the program.
"If you get into the leadership program and see what it is, you lose suspicion that they are recruiting," Vanderbleek said. "There's nothing in the curriculum that focuses on military service."
Brooks seventh-grader Mykayli Thomas said she enjoys the drill team — and the fashion — of the Leadership program.
"I like getting pants and shoes to go with my shirt," she said. Some cadets only have khaki Marine shirts until the group can afford more pieces.
But she also fondly remembers helping out with Toys for Tots last holiday season.
"I met a really nice little girl," Mykayli said.
"I bought a toy."
So did seventh-grader Jordan Sumler.
"We helped out some of the homeless kids," he said. "I stayed all 18 hours."
Considered a success
Kansas State Board of Education member Dave Dennis said he expects to represent the state on the national education planning committee for "JROTC Plus" — and to lobby for Wichita's existing program to be selected as the pilot program next year.
"What we're looking at is to take a good program and make it a great program," said Dennis, a data specialist at North High School and retired Air Force colonel.
"The Army's got a lot deeper pockets than education."
Dennis said the fact the Leadership program survived district budget cuts this year shows it's considered a success.
JROTC officials already admire the program for its foresight, Vanderbleek said.
"To recognize middle school is the location to flip the switch — to give students chances to increase... success at high school," he said.