Decatur Battling To Keep NJROTC

BERLIN — After falling just six students short of enrollment requirements, the Navy Junior Reserves Officers’ Training Corps (NJROTC) program at Stephen Decatur High School last week was added to a list of 19 similar programs across the country to be disestablished, but the popular program will not be sunk without a fight.

The U.S. Navy announced last week it was disestablishing NJROTC programs at 19 high schools across the country, including Decatur, citing a failure to meet enrollment requirements, which call for a minimum of 100 cadets for a school Decatur’s size. According to the Navy, schools with enrollments of at least 1,000 students are required to have 100 cadets in their NJROTC programs.

“Our NJROTC units and cadets are important to the Navy and local communities, and we have been working with the probationary units to solve their enrollment issues,” said Rear Admiral David F. Steindl, commander of the Naval Service Training Command. “School officials were made aware of their probationary status and acknowledged this status on an annual basis. We cannot maintain units that consistently fail to meet minimum enrollment standards and are not in compliance with NJROTC program directives.”

Decatur’s program includes 94 cadets this year, six short of the Navy’s minimum requirements, but that number has spiked upward dramatically in the last couple of years. Three years ago, just 54 Decatur students participated in the program, but the number increased to 74 the following year.

Decatur officials, along with highly mobilized parents, current cadets, former cadets and other supporters, are mounting an effort to get the Navy to reverse its decision about disbanding the program. On Monday, school officials gathered with concerned parents and cadets to plan a strategy that includes seeking the assistance from legislators.

“To terminate such a valued part of our school program right now, when our enrollment is growing, will be a travesty to both our current and future citizens of our school community and to the community at large,” said Principal Lou Taylor. “We will ask our legislators to contact the Department of the Navy to state our case. We simply must prevent this closure from happening.”

Taylor said the NJROTC program provides an opportunity for inclusion for many students at Decatur that don’t fit into some of the other programs at the school. He said the program teaches the cadets valuable life skills like discipline and leadership, for example, that stay with them in their life’s pursuits.

“It’s real disappointing,” he said. “This is a program a lot of kids really identify with and it opens a lot of opportunities for them. Not every kid is an athlete or a musician or an artist. To see it pulled out from underneath them is very sad.”

For the cadets themselves, the disestablishment of the NJROTC program at Decatur, which would be effective June 30, is hard to swallow.

“We’ve gone from 54 three years ago to 94 this year and we’re certain, based on the level of interest from students at the middle school level that we should exceed that 100 minimum threshold next year,” said Cadet Nicholas Bertino. “If we’re given a chance to keep the program alive, I’m certain we’ll be able meet the numbers and go past them.”

Cadet Shannon McGarry agreed the program would likely blow past the minimum threshold next year.

“We’re hoping we can turn it around,” she said. “I’m a senior this year and this program means the world to me. It’s like family. The kids involved in this program are very committed to keeping it and making it work.”

Meanwhile, school officials are proceeding on a parallel course to increase enrollment numbers while the effort to reinstate the program gets underway.

“We established a plan over the last five years, with the Navy’s consent, to increase our enrollment numbers,” said Dr. John Fradel, coordinator of instruction and liaison for the ROTC programs in Worcester County Public Schools. “The plan is working and we have steadily increased enrollments. By next school year, based on eighth grade interest, we anticipate exceeding the 100-student enrollment requirement.”

The NJROTC program has been changing the lives of its participants ever since it was established in 1995, according to Commander Chris Demining, one of two NJROTC instructors at the school.

“I have watched students enter the program not sure where they fit in at high school, only to find that the program is a catalyst for their self-growth,” he said. “As our students grow in self confidence, commitment, and responsibility, the individual cadet, our NJROTC unit, our school and the community all benefit.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes hopes the Navy hears the call to keep the program in place.

“We are accustomed to standards, such as the Navy’s enrollment standard, and certainly we make every effort to satisfy all requirements,” he said. “However, the more important measure for us is whether the program is making a difference for our kids. When the answer is a resounding yes, then we have to ask ourselves what is more important, the fact that we are six students short this year, or that 94 students are serving their school and community as productive citizens? The answer is simple, one that we hope to convey to the Navy.”