In a time of financial crisis and cutbacks for the William S. Hart Union High School District, the ROTC program was a tempting target.
Out of a total of 7,200 high school students in the district, only about 100 are enrolled in the military training program, which costs the district $962 per student, compared to about $313 for other classes. And this at a time when the district's general fund is losing more than $2 million a year.
But when the board had the chance, did it eliminate ROTC?
At a meeting last week, board members voted 4 to 0, with one abstention, to keep the program. Part of what might have helped convince the board was the presence of 50 well-scrubbed, uniformed ROTC students standing at attention around the room. Board members were impressed.
"Oftentimes we spend so much money on at-risk kids," said board member Patricia Hanrion. "I didn't want to take away a program from good kids."
Reserve Officers' Training Corps is most often thought of as a college program. But the junior version for high schools, initiated in the Hart district in 1978, has a 74-year history. The program at Hart calls for students to undergo physical training twice a week and attend three classroom sessions each week on such topics as aerospace science.
This program overseen by the Air Force (the Army, Navy and Marines also sponsor ROTC programs) is aimed at both male and female students considering a career in the military. Those who stay with it through high school--while maintaining at least a 3.3 grade-point average--get a scholarship for college, providing that, once there, they enroll in the senior ROTC program.
"I could have gone out for a sport, but I didn't because this is a chance toward my future," said Jessica Trafecanty, 16, who came to the school board meeting to show support for the program. "If they had eliminated it, it would have affected my chances of going to college, because I'm relying on a scholarship."
But being in ROTC does have its drawbacks in the clique-driven world of high school. Several students in the program say they have been taunted by other students.
"We're different because we wear uniforms every Wednesday," said Elias Scarr, 15, a Valencia High School freshman. "People are just afraid of being different."
But Scarr isn't afraid to take on the taunts.
"In my opinion, they're afraid because we know what we want to do with our lives and they don't," he said.
Debby Meyer, 17, a Canyon High School junior in ROTC, agreed.
"I think they're jealous," she said. "ROTC teaches self-respect and part of that is wearing a uniform.
"We don't care what they think. Personally, I think kids who make fun of us are just jealous and don't have self-esteem."
Tracy Arambasick, 14, a freshman at Valencia, did admit there are some major differences between her ROTC and regular school classes.
"If we get in trouble (in regular classes), we don't have to do push-ups," Arambasick said.
"If you fall asleep during (ROTC) class you get 50. If you talk or look around while you're supposed to be standing at attention you might get 25."
The ROTC physical fitness workouts every Tuesday and Thursday are far more arduous than those in physical education classes. The ROTC cadets start with a strenuous round of calisthenics and then six laps around the track surrounding the football field, often clapping their hands in unison or chanting cadences as they run.
"It's a bunch of grunting put to words," explained Trafecanty, breathlessly, as she finished the run.
The final fitness exam, later this year, will be a five-mile cross-country course.
Although education districts nationwide have struggled financially in recent years, only two U. S. high schools have eliminated the more than 500 junior ROTC programs overseen by the Air Force since 1989, said Master Sgt. Linda Brandon at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., headquarters for the program.
Both occurred because their attendance dropped below the Air Force's minimum required attendance figures and not because of budget problems, she said.
Although the Hart board voted to keep ROTC, its members warned students and parents at the meeting that to ensure its future they need to make the program more cost effective by getting more students involved. Hanrion suggested they aim at getting at least 50 more enrolled.
"This will probably come across the board for us to look at cost-wise every year or two," the school board member warned.
Recruiting more students might not be easy, even among those interested in the ROTC program. Peer pressure is strong.
"We have students who are interested when they're by themselves," said Meyer, "but when their friends show up, they lose interest."
Keeping the ROTC program means the district will probably have to cut something else as it struggles to balance its $51-million budget, authorities admit. But interim Supt. Daniel Hanigan said that ROTC is nonetheless a good investment. "There is much more value to that program behind its cost," he said.
Sgt. Jerry Hoppe, who teaches the Hart ROTC students, agreed. "A typical ROTC kid is not one who is getting into trouble with the law," he said. "They're not doing drugs or alcohol. They're involved in a whole variety of community activities."