Class Warfare

6 minute read
Ron Stodghill II/Jackson

Who’s going to argue with this outcome? Back in 1992 Shunta Belle was on the fast track to nowhere, “hanging around thugs and drug dealers and trying to prove myself to them.” Then, as a freshman at Provine High School in Jackson, Miss., she signed up for the spit-and-shine, no-nonsense world of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. For the first year, Belle held on to a few of her underachieving civilian comrades. But over the next three years, she picked up new friends, a better attitude and a fresh set of goals to match. “I got serious about things,” she says, “and I wanted to be around people who wanted something out of life.” Today Belle, 23, is a fire fighter in her hometown department.

It is stories like Belle’s that have helped fuel the growth of JROTC. Started in 1916, JROTC established a beachhead at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy in Norwich, Vt. Currently the program can be found in some 3,000 public schools across the nation, and its Pentagon funding is expected to rise more than 50%, from $215 million last year to $326 million by 2004. JROTC has its best-known booster in Colin Powell, who was a ROTC cadet as a student at City College of New York. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he decided that JROTC offered the best prescription for saving lost inner-city youths.

“Yes, I’ll admit, the armed forces might get a youngster more inclined to enlist as a result of Junior ROTC. But society got a far greater payoff,” Powell later wrote in his 1995 autobiography, My American Journey. “Inner-city kids, many from broken homes, found stability and role models in Junior ROTC. They got a taste of discipline, the work ethic, and they experienced pride of membership in something healthier than a gang.”

There are quite a few people, however, who believe that those success stories come at too high a price. After all, JROTC teaches kids how to act and think like soldiers before they are old enough to know their own mind. Critics argue that because such programs are among the few sources of additional funding for some of the nation’s neediest schools, they exploit poor kids by putting them on a military track, to the exclusion of other options. The debate has heated up as a growing number of school districts have begun offering JROTC, while others in such cities as Oakland, Calif., and Chicago have scrapped conventional teaching methods to convert some schools into public military academies.

One of the biggest selling points of JROTC to school districts is that its matching federal funds provide a cost-effective way to broaden a school’s curriculum. But that’s a claim opponents say masks many hidden expenses. A recent study by the American Friends Service Committee argues, for example, that after school districts subsidize military instructors’ salaries, renovate facilities to accommodate JROTC instruction and fork over for mandated field trips, JROTC is usually pricier than conventional academic programs.

Like most urban public school districts, the one Belle joined in Jackson suffers overcrowded classrooms, underpaid teachers and students whose scores on the ACT, a standardized college-admissions exam, lag behind the national average (the district average last year was just 16.9 out of a total of 36 points). JROTC has helped to even the playing field. “Jackson has more unwed mothers than just about any city of its size in the nation,” says state senator Robert Johnson III. “We’re talking about second- and third-generation single parents. The people criticizing JROTC are not the people living in these communities, because if they were, they would know that the people making the biggest difference, doing the most grass-roots work, are people with military backgrounds.”

With the odds for success against many of Jackson’s students, local educators applaud any program able to bolster academic performance even marginally. The cadets score two or three points higher on the act than their civilian peers. Last year nearly 96% of the district’s cadets graduated, compared with 92% of its noncadets. “We have micromanaged these students and conditioned them to be successful,” says Colonel Lucius Wright, director of Jackson’s program. Says Jodie Brown, 23, a Forest Hill High School graduate and former JROTC cadet who last year returned to her alma mater as a history teacher: “When you’re in JROTC, it’s almost like having four or five parents at school with you.”

Critics, both educators and parents, wonder, though, whether another well-funded program focusing on, say, music or science might produce equally positive results. They say JROTC exploits minority kids by dangling a carrot of financial security in front of them. According to a 1995 study, paid for by the American Friends Service Committee and called Making Soldiers in the Public Schools, 45% of all cadets who successfully complete JROTC enter a branch of the service. “A 14-year-old is no match for the Department of Defense in sorting out the military’s claims,” says study co-author Catherine Lutz, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

That may be true. But former Army JROTC cadet Kimberly Allen, 22, is not complaining, even though she admits that her experience at Jackson’s Provine High School often felt like a dress rehearsal for a future in the military. Allen, a chemistry major in her junior year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, says JROTC’s instructors often invited Army recruiters for meetings with cadets and encouraged them to fill out applications for the Army Reserves and National Guard. “I was really naive,” Allen recalls. “I didn’t think females or blacks were even allowed into West Point. But during my junior year, a female officer came down to talk to us, and I became really interested.”

Not everyone is as receptive to JROTC’s soft nudge into the rank and file. “I enjoyed [JROTC], but I never wanted to pursue a career in the military,” says the Rev. Edward Cook, 27, a former JROTC cadet and a 1993 graduate of Jackson’s Forest Hill High School. Still, as a seminary student and director of the day-care center at Greater New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson, Cook says those old experiences in JROTC are proving relevant in his work today. “The same truths you learn in JROTC you will also find in the Bible,” Cook says, “especially being accountable not just for yourself but for the people around you.” It’s a valuable lesson to learn. The question is whether JROTC is the only way to teach it.

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