At Sussex Tech, JROTC program may not fit

At left, Sussex Tech Superintendent Stephen Guthrie addresses the audience at the Monday board of education meeting with an update on the status of the school’s Army JROTC program. At right is board president Warren Reid. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN – In the educational jigsaw puzzle of Sussex Tech High School’s work-based learning initiative, Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps may be a piece that does not fit.

That was the word Monday from Sussex Tech School District Superintendent Stephen Guthrie and senior ROTC instructor Maj. Ben Jester, amid pleas from several parents to keep the program during the board of education meeting.

“I know that there has been a lot of conversations about the future of the JROTC program,” said Mr. Guthrie. “Our mission is to provide a vocational/technical education to students. That’s our primary goal here. We spent all last year going through a strategic plan. One of the criticisms that we got as a school district is that we weren’t providing a significant work-based learning program. We have increased the work-based learning opportunities … from a handful last year to over 150 this year.”

The sticking point is that JROTC requires access to cadets daily, while Sussex Tech’s work-based learning requires students to leave the school campus part of the school day.

“That’s the reason why I recommended the closure of JROTC. It’s not because it’s not a great program. It’s not because it’s not loved at Sussex Tech. There is nobody guilty in this room. That’s not the issue,” said Maj. Jester. “The unfortunate part is work-based learning and changes that are coming and being forced upon us, it’s an environment … that does not fit with JROTC.”

On Jan. 27, Mr. Guthrie met with Tech’s two JROTC instructors – Maj. Jester and 1st Sgt. Timothy Spence – “who went through a list with me of the concerns that they had. Some of those concerns were specifically about the work-based learning experience. They felt – and I am summarizing – that JROTC will not be able to function properly on the two weeks off/two weeks on environment,” Mr. Guthrie said.

“We made a big public statement about this, that we were moving back to the tech-centric – and we were increasing the amount of time students spent in their CTE (Career and Technical Education) area, almost doubling that time. And the opportunity would be for all students in their senior year to spend a significant time out of work-based learning opportunities.”

The future of Tech’s JROTC program hit social media last week when parents heard the program’s two instructors are planning to retire.

“We knew the major (Jester) was leaving and everybody accepted that, and now they don’t have the first sergeant as of next Friday, and they look up to them,” said Nina Davis Rodriguez, parent of a JROTC student. “I would just like to know what is going to happen next?”

Maj. Ben Jester, senior instructor for Sussex Tech’s JROTC program, shares his reasoning for recommending closure of the school’s JROTC program.

Dan Shortridge, public information officer for Sussex Tech, said the school district is not at liberty to discuss personnel issues, but added “that we are working with JROTC leadership to ensure students have appropriate instructors.”

Maj. Jester shared his rationale for recommending closure of the school’s JROTC program.

“First off, the work-based learning program requires that the seniors be gone for at least half of their school day, and eventually even more than that,” he said. “So, for all intents and purposes they could be gone for six out of the eight periods in work-based learning,” said Maj. Jester, adding that next year the juniors will be flighted into work-based learning. “They will be gone for half of the periods.

“With those two groups gone just by themselves, you need to understand something … JROTC is built on leadership. Leadership is something that is experienced. With them not here … senior leadership is going to be gone. When you remove the leadership out of JROTC basically you’ve hobbled them not to the point where you’ve just removed the toe, you took both legs off.”

In addition, Mr. Guthrie pointed to the cap that the legislators put on Sussex Tech, which dropped school enrollment from over 1,500 to 1,250.

“No one has anything but high regard for our JROTC program. It is not my, (principal) Dr. (John) Demby’s or the board’s intent to eliminate the JROTC program,” said Mr. Guthrie. “We would like to keep it here as long as possible. Recognizing that these things exist has caused us to have to look at the program and make sure that we have a proper environment for it.”

Maj. Jester said numerically all this will negatively impact Tech’s JROTC program.

“The first year you are not going to be able to get to the 100 (cadet) mark. That is the minimum that the federal government requires,” Maj. Jester said. “If they don’t hit 100, the first year you go into probation. The second year, it’s not going to get any better and you’ll be dismissed as soon as you do the open enrollment. They (federal government) will not fund the rest of the program.”

Tech board members voiced their admiration for the JROTC program amid hope that possibly a compromise can be realized.

“Dr. Demby and his staff and Mr. Guthrie and his staff, they have been creative with work-based learning schedules,” said Warren Reid, Sussex Tech’s board of education president. “There is some creativity that may able to be had but we haven’t had a chance to look at. It is something we want to keep. It is vital to the atmosphere out here. Our hands are tied when someone comes to us and says we are getting shut down.”

Parents are hoping the program is not discontinued.

“This program, you describe it as an elective. This is a lifestyle for these kids,” said Ms. Gibbs. “They are dedicated. They put their hearts and souls into this. They are planning on military careers. This is changing these kids’ lives. We need to keep this program not just for my kid but for all the other kids – 160-some odd children that are going to be affected by this. They have worked hard … hoping to get a leg up on the military service that they plan on pursuing. They have also been working toward their technical certificate. So they are going to be faced with a decision if this program leaves: ‘Do I stay at the school I love and just throw away the plans I have made for my future for the military, or do I keep those plans for the military and return to my home school so I can keep on with JROTC? But then I lose the three or two years that I put in my technical path.’”

Laurel Hummel, whose daughter is a junior in JROTC, says JROTC encourages citizenship, leadership, character and community service, increases GPA results and lowers school dropout rate. She added Tech’s JROTC program has been a steppingstone to the military for many students, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Coast Guard Academy. She added it also provides scholarships opportunities.

Seaford resident Shaneka Gibbs gestures during her commentary in support of Sussex Tech’s JROTC program.

“Why could JROTC not be a technical area?” Ms. Hummel said.

Mr. Guthrie said that was previously pursued but was not approved by Delaware’s Department of Education.

“It has to be accredited by DOE,” Mr. Guthrie said. “We made that request. They turned us down.”

Additionally, Maj. Jester emphasized that it would not be fair to continue the program and bring in new ROTC instructors whose job security would soon be in jeopardy.

“Basically, what you are saying is you’re going to bring two families here and let them discover after a year and some odd months that they no longer have a job,” said Maj. Jester. “That’s not proper. You should not do that to a veteran’s family, someone that has served this country for at least 20 years.

“For the record I want to say that anybody who is saying that Sussex Tech is trying to get rid of JROTC is incorrect. We are not,” said Mr. Guthrie. “But I have to recognize our primary mission is vocational education. I hope there is a way that we can keep it here.”