The US military wants to save the JROTC in three high schools in San Francisco. But school officials say no

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Sofia Lopez had high hopes for her senior year.

After three years of attending Galileo High School’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, the previously shy girl had been selected for the upcoming school year to serve as a battalion commander, the program’s highest leadership position. . It was a major accomplishment for Lopez, who never thought of herself as a leader before joining JROTC.

San Francisco district officials, however, have other plans for the 17-year-old and her fellow cadets this fall.

Citing declining JROTC enrollment and budget constraints, district leaders decided in March to eliminate the program at Mission, Balboa and Galileo high schools starting this fall, while leaving it in place at Lowell, Lincoln and Washington – all of the wealthiest western high schools in the city. side where participation rates were slightly higher.

It’s not the first time the program, which has existed in city schools for more than a century, has faced cuts or even outright elimination. Critics have long opposed a military presence in the district, and administrators have questioned the cost, which is shared between the school system and the military. The school board voted in 2006 to start the program, but later resuscitated it after failing to provide an alternative leadership program for the 1,200 cadets attending JROTC.

Once again, supporters are fighting to save the program in the district, this time convincing the U.S. military to increase its share of the program’s funding by covering the full cost of salaries for 12 JROTC teachers for both. coming years to help rebuild the program in the wake of the pandemic.

Historically, the Army has paid half the average salary of $121,000 for each instructor—usually a former military officer—leaving the other half and an estimated $48,000 cost in benefits up to the district.

It’s too late and not enough, according to district officials, who said the increased funding would not cover all costs, including benefits, and would create a significant logistical challenge to rearrange student course assignments.

“Schedules for all high school students beginning in the fall of 2022 have already been created,” district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick said. “We appreciate that the army is ready to help. We are looking at how this might be feasible, taking into account that planning has already taken place for the fall as well as the Army’s expectations for the program.

Dudnick added that reinstating the program at all three schools would also require time to recruit staff and enroll enough students to meet the Army’s policy of a minimum of 100 cadets at each school. The fall semester starts in just over a month.

The army’s offer, however, has been on the table since May.

For Sofia, her senior year hopes have been dashed. And she worries about freshmen feeling lost, as she did.

“I feel like so many people won’t end up like me,” she said. “We are losing so much potential for future leaders.”

She and other supporters hope district officials will change their minds and accept the Army’s offer of nearly $1.5 million this year to keep the program going at the six schools.

US Army General Paul Funk, one of seven four-star generals in military service, is due in San Francisco on Monday to provide support for the program, an event Mayor of London Breed, city supervisors, some school board members and the school’s new principal Matt Wayne are expected to attend.

On Friday, however, the district had not signaled that it would change its mind about the three schools, even if the calculations added up in its favor.

If district officials took the money, it would mean that instead of paying $651,000 to cover half the salaries of six instructors at three schools plus $48,000 each in benefits, they would only pay $576,000 in benefits for a dozen instructors – saving $75,000 each year.

“Are they really not going to take the money?” asked Quincy Yu, who fought to keep the program in place for nearly two decades. “Balboa’s parents are screaming. Mission’s parents are screaming. We’ve been working on it for months. »

Mission parent Jen Lum is one of them.

“It’s more frustrating than anything, because I feel like they don’t put students first,” she says. “The neighborhood, for some reason, is dragging its feet and I don’t understand why.”

His son Levi, a junior this fall, opted to enroll in the school’s JROTC course his freshman year, but was assigned to the mariachi class instead — a placement he protested and successfully passed. reverse.

Lum, a single mother, saw Levi thrive in the program, which gave him structure, mentorship and community. He applied for a role in brigade command for the coming year and was appointed command sergeant major, a district-wide leadership position, she said, her pride in the son’s accomplishment being clear in his voice.

“It’s not just a class,” she said. “It’s been such a formative experience for him.”

Lum also noted that JROTC instructors introduced robotics to her son’s school, which Lowell and other schools already had, but Mission didn’t. There is also fencing and archery and other opportunities that would disappear with the program, she added.

“It’s arguably the students who need it the most,” she said of enrollment at Mission High, which is 61% Latino and 15% Black, with 60% from low-income families and a third learning English.

District officials said enrollment in the JROTC program has declined over the past decade, falling below Army expectations that participating schools maintain an enrollment of at least 100 students.

JROTC supporters say the district hasn’t done enough to boost participation in recent years, and especially in the wake of the pandemic.

Enrollment in the program depends in part on support from each school’s administration, said Doug Bullard, JROTC instructor at Lowell and acting district-wide program director.

Sometimes students don’t learn the curriculum until they enter high school, which means they often need permission to move from physical education to JROTC, which counts as education credit. physical.

Additionally, Galileo, Balboa, and Mission administrators in recent years have allowed only one JROTC instructor instead of the two typically needed to run a program for 100 students.

Bullard said if the district reinstates the program at all three high schools, it already has five JROTC instructors ready to fill the vacancies, and he expects enrollment will top 100 at all six sites next year if resources are in hand. square.

“Students want to be part of something,” he said. “We teach them character, we teach them responsibility and all the things the district wants their students to have.”

In the meantime, Sofia plans to prepare to apply to colleges in the fall, hoping to study psychology. Her application will be filled with leadership and community service experience from her time at JROTC, she said.

“It made me a lot more confident and assertive,” she said. JROTC “is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Jill Tucker is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @jilltucker

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