The pushback was passionate from a few community members after a St. Paul high school principal proposed offering an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program.

“Keep the military out. Leave the kids alone,” one Highland Park High School neighbor said at a recent meeting. “ ... We need to do the best for them [students] — and it’s not to groom them for war.”

That’s an unfair assessment of JROTC, and it fails to acknowledge the benefits of the program. If there is enough student, parent and community interest, JROTC should be available to those who want it at Highland High.

Some say the program is no more than a recruitment tool for the armed services — a way to indoctrinate young minds into a military mind-set. JROTC students do learn about military operations; they are called cadets, wear uniforms, perform marching drills and often serve as honor guards for school and city events.

Yet participation is voluntary — just like any elective course — and there’s no requirement to join the military after graduation.

In fact, the Air Force JROTC at Johnson High describes the course as 40 percent aerospace science instruction, 40 percent leadership education (with an emphasis on, among other things, discipline, citizenship, study habits and communication skills) and 20 percent wellness to encourage healthy active lifestyles. All are skills that students can apply to college and careers outside of military service.

In addition, a 2008 study concluded that JROTC improved academic performance for participants — especially for African-Americans and other students of color. The study of 15,000 10th-graders, conducted from 1980 to 1992, found that black JROTC participants had lower dropout rates than black nonparticipants and that female students “display higher self-esteem scores than female nonparticipants.”

Should Highland decide to apply for and offer JROTC, the school would become the sixth of St. Paul’s seven traditional public high schools to offer the program. By comparison, none of the Minneapolis traditional public high schools offers JROTC.

To offer JROTC, individual schools with district approval must apply to the service branch they choose. Highland officials estimate that the program would cost about $200,000, half of which would be paid by that branch of service. That budget generally covers the cost of two instructors — one an active service member and the other retired military.

Some of those who oppose JROTC at Highland say the program would be at odds with the school’s international baccalaureate program, which urges students to work to create a better and more peaceful world. But many of JROTC’s goals — leadership, improved academics and community service — are indeed consistent with IB.

Building community support for the program at Highland will take time. To that end, the district has wisely pledged to hold another community meeting on the proposal before the end of the year to get additional feedback.

Highland Park Principal Winston Tucker has said he decided to pursue JROTC after students at other St. Paul schools told him the program gave them leadership opportunities and a sense of belonging.

Creating more options for students to have those kinds of experiences should be the goal in every Minnesota school.