St. Thomas Academy, Minnesota’s last remaining military high school, is severing ties with the Army.

It’s a change that breaks with 99 years of history, removing cadets from the Army’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) and establishing the school as an independent military academy with new curriculum, a rewritten school creed and even new patches on their uniforms. When the change takes effect in the fall, equipment and annual funding from the Army will be gone.

“For our school, we very much value our traditions and our history,” said Matthew Mohs, headmaster of the Catholic, all-boys school in Mendota Heights. “So losing, or choosing to leave, a relationship we’ve had for close to a century — it is a big deal.”

School administrators say they decided to cut Army ties for several reasons: They anticipate the Army is going to eliminate the St. Thomas JROTC program soon, they want more autonomy and feel the curriculum has changed.

The Army disputes several of the school’s assertions about curriculum and pending cuts.

But many school administrators and alumni said they are excited about the school creating its own leadership curriculum and having more flexibility, despite the fact that the school will lose $156,000 in annual government funding by ending the relationship with the Army.

“I think it’s really stemming a lot from a desire for us to be in control of our own destiny,” Mohs said.

There is some apprehension. The school has been fielding calls from alumni who fear it is eliminating its military focus altogether.

“I was a little concerned at first. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant for St. Thomas,” said Steve Norton, a 1996 graduate and alumni association board president. “[JROTC] is certainly a big aspect of the school.”

But once alumni hear the military element will remain, “their eyes get big and they’re on board,” said Mike DePuglio, the school’s commandant of cadets.

Some controversy

St. Thomas administrators said the JROTC curriculum is no longer relevant to their college prep student demographic.

“Simply put, the Army JROTC curriculum and model has evolved over the years into a program that de-emphasizes traditional military topics and has redesigned its model to teach structure … job skills and life stability to targeted at-risk teenagers,” DePuglio said.

The Army denies there is any JROTC “closure list,” and said schools are eliminated only if enrollment drops or the school isn’t meeting standards, said Mike Johnson, spokesman for the Army Cadet Command, which runs JROTC. He also disputed St. Thomas’ characterization of the JROTC curriculum: “We’d maintain that the curriculum has always been practical and life-skills oriented, because that’s the main purpose.”

And there’s been “no movement to concentrate Army JROTC programs in urban or inner-city schools,” he said.

There are more than 1,700 schools nationwide with JROTC programs, most of them extracurricular. But St. Thomas won’t be the first independent military school.

The Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States has 28 members that are college-prep high schools. Of those, eight are independent while 20 have a JROTC affiliation. The discipline is there, even without the formal military ties, said Ray Rottman, executive director of the association.

“We’re not marching them to teach them how to keep their legs straight,” he said. “We’re marching them … so when they’re in the classroom that same discipline and structure makes sense to them and they can focus.”

John Buxton, head of Culver Academies, an Indiana boys’ military school that’s been independent of JROTC since 1988, said “the Old Guard bristles a little bit” when a school cuts military ties. But, he added, “St. Thomas will be well-served by the decision.”

Marching forward

St. Thomas administrators said day-to-day cadet life won’t change much. Core classes, like math and English, will remain the same. The school has raised money and paid off debt so tuition won’t increase from the funding loss, said Mohs, the headmaster.

The most significant change will be to military classes, held three times a week. About 70 percent of that curriculum will be new, including more lessons on leadership, military history and geography. The school will continue covering topics like marksmanship, civic responsibility and first aid.

St. Thomas hopes to keep other traditions intact, like marching, reviews and an annual inspection that evaluates cadets’ appearance, drill skills and knowledge. Students will still have formation, an all-school morning meeting where they salute each other and seniors read speeches.

Cadets will wear the same uniforms, button-up light-blue shirts, black ties and shiny shoes. A JROTC patch will be removed from one sleeve, a St. Thomas crest sewn on.

Senior Connor Duffy said he and other upperclassmen created a new school creed, replacing the JROTC one. It’s a chance to establish new traditions.

“It’s been a lot of fun working with … my senior classmates in smoothing the transition for next year’s seniors,” Duffy said. “I think it will be very fulfilling to come back 25 years from now, stop by a class, and hear cadets saying a creed that I helped design.”