Snohomish High School Junior ROTC could be saved

SNOHOMISH — A rich tradition and heartfelt pleas might not be enough to save the Snohomish High School Marine Corps Junior ROTC from the budget ax.

Cadets in khaki and olive green uniforms and dozens of supporters took a stand Wednesday night, urging the Snohomish School Board to find a way to keep their program going.

After two hours of testimony, the board told Superintendent Bill Mester to begin talking to the military about dropping the program, but it also agreed to give people a chance to raise enough private money to keep the JROTC alive.

It was an emotional night. Voices quavered, tears were shed and tales were told.

Parents credited the JROTC for turning around socially awkward and academically troubled children. National studies showing better attendance and grades among students were touted.

“I don’t think I would be graduating or going to college (without the JROTC),” senior Taylor Hackel said. “This program taught me respect, leadership and confidence.”

If it can’t be saved, it will be the end of an era. The Snohomish Junior ROTC program has been in existence since 1967 and is one of the first programs of its kind on the West Coast. It’s one of just three in the state affiliated with the Marine Corps.

Emily Bowen, who graduated from Snohomish High a year ago, was one of nine siblings to enroll in JROTC. Two of the nine enlisted in the military after high school.

“The Bowen brothers and sisters always thought it was the greatest class ever,” she said.

Emily Bowen was part of JROTC all four years of high school. The experience taught her self-discipline and helped her establish lasting friendships.

“I’m kind of mad about it,” she said. “It’s like a second family to me.”

Elizabeth Wu dropped band her freshman year to take JROTC as an extra class to fulfill a PE credit as part of an academically rigorous schedule. She returned her sophomore year because she liked the JROTC class so much.

“I’m an only child,” she said. “I never had a sibling. This actually gave me a family.”

Before the meeting, Mester said he has heard many testimonials about the value and tradition of the JROTC program.

“It’s not about the quality of the program or the worthwhileness,” Mester said. “This is about staffing.”

Federal law requires two teachers for any JROTC program. This year, there are about 110 students from Snohomish, Glacier Peak and Monroe high schools enrolled in the Snohomish High School program, but early registration for next fall indicates that number would be around 85 to 90, Mester said.

As a result, the student-teacher ratio is much less than other classes, where teachers can have as many as 160 students a day, he said.

Typically, schools and the military split the JROTC salaries, with schools picking up the benefits and the military paying other operational costs, such as uniforms. The total cost of salaries and benefits is about $169,000.

The Monroe School Board recently directed staff to drop JROTC funding for next year.

As was the case in Snohomish, Monroe JROTC cadets and their families pleaded with their district leaders to keep it going.

“It isn’t about the value of the program,” said Rosemary O’Neil, a Monroe School District spokeswoman. “It’s about the dollars and cents. Everyone is making really, really tough choices to protect the learning environment of the classroom.”

The anguish of making those decisions is not lost on Bill McHenry, national program director for the Marine Corps JROTC in Quantico, Va.

“It’s hard for me to second-guess superintendents, principals and school boards,” said McHenry, who served in the Marine Corps for 29 years before earning a doctorate and teaching high school JROTC. “They are there because they love kids.”

McHenry said very few students who take JROTC actually enlist in the military after high school. Its greatest value is helping students fit into high school and instilling discipline, he said.

“Status is really earned, and personal responsibility is more than a phrase,” he said.

The contract between the school district and the Marine Corps requires a year’s notice before a program is dropped. However, both sides can agree to waive the requirement, he said.

McHenry said it won’t take long to find a school to take Snohomish’s place.

“We have 122 schools nationwide approved for programs, but I don’t have the funding to approve them,” he said.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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