More military programs planned for high schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School District is looking for a site for a military high school and is planning a major expansion of Junior ROTC, an elective military-run course for high school students, according to CEO Paul Vallas.

“Our goal is to get ROTC programs in all 22 of the comprehensive high schools,” Vallas said at a November School Reform Commission meeting, during which the SRC voted to award a $50,000 contract that made Ben Franklin High School the seventh school in the District to house a JROTC program.

But in an overall climate of growing antiwar sentiment, at least two locally based groups are organizing in opposition, saying Vallas’s plan would “turn our youth into soldiers.”

Supporters of the American Friends Service Committee and the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors say Junior ROTC is military training that sends the wrong messages to students about violence and weapons and does not belong in the public school system. The two groups also argue that the program is not a wise use of class time, and that the JROTC curriculum and instructor credentials fall below accepted standards for schools.

The JROTC program is a three- or four-year course of study taught by retired military personnel using a curriculum developed by one of the service branches. It combines classroom work on topics like leadership and military history with activities like drill and marching.

Participating students are not obligated to join the military but sometimes wear a military uniform to school. JROTC staff work in partnership with military recruiters, and JROTC cadets have consistently enlisted in the military at a much higher rate than other students.

The JROTC program is mostly found in high schools with many low-income students and students of color as well as in schools in the South.

“I don’t see it as a military recruiting program, but a program that offers a "character-building experience,” Vallas commented. But he touted the military scholarships and career opportunities available to JROTC students who graduate from high school.

As schools chief in Chicago, Vallas oversaw the launching of the nation’s first all-JROTC public school.

The School District has hired Lieutenant Colonel Russell Gallagher to direct its JROTC programs district-wide and oversee the military school initiative at a $75,000 annual salary.