While there were good reasons for phasing out JROTC, the way it was cut from San Francisco schools last year was wrong. Regardless of ideology, it is fundamentally wrong to cut an educational program without any heed given to the students who demand it.

Nevertheless, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has a second chance to listen to the students and to truly address their academic and social needs as they begin to plan the programs that will replace the JROTC.

The JROTC, or Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps was slated to be removed from the City’s schools over the next two years due to concerns around the military’s discriminatory hiring practices and anti-militarization. Students were rightfully outraged that a program so popular would be killed by a school district starving for extra-curricular actives—and without their input.

While not claiming to be able to fully recapture the JROTC experience, this article attempts to outline steps which should be taken to make the best of a situation which is currently on a course to fail. A community task force has been set up to find replacement programs for the School District; this task force should make an honest attempt to find out what aspects of JROTC worked best and how they could be best duplicated.

1. Get the data—why did students like JROTC?

Before anything else, the School District must make a major effort to understand what aspects of the JROTC program were most appealing to students. Only then can we begin to try and create alternate programs.

We do know that students joined JROTC for a myriad of reasons. First, we know many joined simply because they stated no preferences for physical education (this was common, but SFUSD does not have exact numbers). But beyond them, casual conversations with students have shown varying motivations, including boredom with traditional physical education, the need for mentors, leadership development, and career/college planning.

Talking to students in small, intimate focus groups could provide answers to these questions. Understanding our students—and then responding to their interests—will both create stronger programs and perhaps rebuild the bridges which fell between the SFUSD and its students. All other steps are dependent on the information gathered from students.

2. Address students’ need for guidance, leadership development, and support.

Young people need mentors, and JROTC provided this. Regardless of the militaristic context, students within the program have repeatedly expressed their love and need for such mentorship and role models.

This will not be easy to recapture, and I will not attempt to dictate what it would entail; only the students can tell us this. What is clear is that any series of new programs must address this issue. The replacement programs will vary, but addressing these personal needs of students is paramount.

3. Build more alternatives to traditional physical education.

Right now, if you are in high school, you have three options to fulfill the physical education requirements: a) traditional classes (jumping jacks, stretching, jogging, etc), b) athletic teams (which a student must tryout for), or, c) JROTC. While we must wait and hear from the students regarding what they want, it is already clear that there are not sufficient options.

One new strategy would be to expand the number of athletic opportunities. This could come from a collaboration between the SFUSD and the City’s Recreation and Parks Department, along these lines.

One obvious advantage to the JROTC was the federal funding, though this was largely offset by the higher cost of the instructors. Nonetheless, any new JROTC alternatives would need new funding sources. This could be satisfied by a demand from the City government that SFUSD request more in-kind services next year, rather than the high demands for cash that dominated the 2007-2008 budget process.

4. Make career and college planning available to all students.

While in theory all students do have access to such planning, the reality is that career and college planning programs in high schools are overworked and understaffed. As in other areas, students need close attention and mentorship to believe that someone cares for them; personal relationships can make a student think more about their future.

JROTC provided this, and more; students out of the program often reported an increase of their self-worth and determination to succeed. This is clearly a source of the massive anger felt by hundreds of SFUSD students. There are many options to attempt to fill this void, including more counseling and an expansion of the high school academies program, both of which should be tailored to students’ needs.

In the end, one must recognize the importance of JROTC in the lives of many students. The SFUSD failed at its first opportunity to make this switch with any student input, and to repeat that mistake would be tragic. Though I simultaneously see JROTC’s benefits and problems, I do believe that with the proper amount of student participation we can create new programs which will address student’s individual needs more effectively and substantially.

We owe it to the students to get it right this time.

Peter Lauterborn is a youth and education advocate in San Francisco. Please send comments and questions to plauterborn@gmail.com.