The choir sang beautifully and the cadets gave it their best “left, right, left” while marching in a Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) ceremony Thursday at Washington Technology Magnet School on St. Paul’s North End.
Impressed by the display of discipline and precision, Superintendent John Thein said: “You have set a high bar for your fellow students to follow.”
Several hours later, however, a proposal to add an Air Force JROTC unit at Highland Park Senior High went over as smoothly as a twisted ankle.
Parents, students and community members invited to weigh in on the plan swatted aside the Air Force’s stated emphasis on “integrity, service before self and excellence in all we do,” lambasting JROTC programs as an unwelcome intrusion in the schools and a thinly veiled military recruiting device.
The recruitment charge, often stated and often denied by JROTC instructors and students, brought a suddenly emotional edge to a meeting attended by about 25 people.
“Keep the military out. Leave the kids alone,” said Katherine Kleckner, a neighborhood resident and former Como Park High librarian. “While they are our kids, we need to do the best for them, and it’s not to groom them for war.”
About five people spoke in favor of making Highland Park the sixth high school in the St. Paul district to offer a JROTC program.
Others criticized the one-sided nature of the JROTC presentation — led by Col. Deon Ford, who oversees the Air Force JROTC program at Johnson High — and lack of notice to students and non-English speakers. That prompted Dana Abrams, the district’s ombudsperson, and Theresa Battle, assistant superintendent of high schools, to pledge to hold another community meeting before any move is made to bring the Air Force to Highland Park.
“They are not going where they are not welcome,” Battle said after the meeting. “We respect the community. It’s not for every community.”
Highland Park is whiter and more affluent than the North End — differences reflected in the student populations at the two high schools. At Washington Technology Magnet, 89 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, double the percentage at Highland Park. But Washington also is one of the district’s highest-demand schools. It had a waiting list of 262 at the close of this year’s school-choice lottery season.
Winston Tucker, the principal at Highland Park, said visits to the North End school helped inspire his decision to pursue a JROTC program. The cadets act as greeters and guides at community events at the school, and Tucker said they shared with him how the program gave them a sense of belonging and leadership opportunities.
Highland Park also needs more electives, he said, a view backed Thursday night by a few parents gathered in the school library.
In her presentation, Ford said being a senior aerospace science instructor at Johnson High has been her favorite job. Half of her pay is covered by the Air Force. She teaches “History of Flight” to ninth-graders, and she referred to a survival course as a favorite among cadets. Last year, students went to Lebanon Hills Region Park in Eagan to learn skills such as building fires and purifying water. Cadets also go on flights and take turns sitting in the cockpit.
“I want to be clear: We are not a military recruitment program,” she said. “My job is to provide them with tools to be successful in life.”
The proposal’s critics said the district could not afford its projected $100,000 share of the JROTC program’s $200,000 annual cost, not when arts and music are being cut; that teaching is a “teacher’s job,” and not a colonel’s; that the meeting room had too few people of color, like many of those who serve on the front lines in war, and that the military knows having uniforms in schools can be a seductive way to get students to enlist.
Brad Sigal, a middle school parent, added that a JROTC program also would appear to be at odds with Highland Park’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which urges students to work to create a better and more peaceful world. Tucker, in an interview, said he believed JROTC fits the IB program by promoting leadership and community service, as well as the importance of being critical thinkers willing to take risks.
At Washington Technology Magnet, where two of 22 senior cadets enlisted in the military after the 2014-15 school year, senior Yan Zhou Chen plans to apply to Tufts University and pursue a career in chemical engineering.
Sword in hand, she led cadets through drills on Thursday, an unlikely success story given she joined JROTC only because a friend did.
As a ninth-grader in the JROTC, Zhou Chen said, “you are your focus,” making sure your uniform looks sharp and you follow orders. Eventually, you lead others and are responsible for the training and advancement of your cadets, she said. Asked what she tells students who have wondered whether they should become cadets, she replied in an e-mail: “SERIOUSLY, JOIN!”
As for electing not to go into the military, she said it was a relief to her parents.