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Jr. ROTC: ‘more than a uniform’

Jr. ROTC cadets (from left) Michael Kuster, Randall Johns, Ashli Knapp and Scott Burkhardt lower the flags in the high school court yard November 29.Jacksonville may be a big Navy town but the Air Force rules in Baker County. At least on the high school campus.

Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps has been a permanent fixture at Baker County High since 2005 and there’s every indication it will continue for years to come. The school board officially renewed the program, which currently has about 114 cadets enrolled, for a seventh year at its November 22 meeting .

“There’s a feeling of family in the corps that students respond to,” said school principal Tom Hill, “and they absolutely do enjoy doing the drills.”

Students get to demonstrate their precision marching and other ceremonial skills, not only on campus where they raise and lower the US flag every day, but throughout the county at various events, including football games, parades and other community activities.

“We’re extremely proud of those young men and women who participate in the JROTC program,” Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson said. “They participate in numerous civic functions.”

But there’s much more to it than looking sharp in a uniform, synchronized marching, giving crisp salutes and respectfully handling the American flag.

The program also places a high priority on academics. The JROTC unit, which is comprised of about 60 percent males and 40 percent females, is in its own aerospace science department and requires its members to complete at least 120 hours of classroom instruction per year using curriculum material provided by the Air Force.

Some students who join the program come with solid academic credentials and many who have struggled academically have brought their grades up and become better students all around, Maj. Joseph Chiofolo, the senior instructor in the JROTC unit since its inception, said in an interview the morning of November 28.

“We’ve had kids join from the Beta Club to those in danger of not graduating,” he said, adding that those who stay the course end up with a diploma in their hand.

Not every student who joins JROTC stays in it for three or four years, however.

“Many complete one year and never come back,” Maj. Chiofolo said. “There are certain kids who join that it just clicks with. We call it esprit de corps.”

Unlike ROTC units in colleges and universities that are basically recruiting tools for the armed forces, Junior ROTC programs in high school have a completely different mission, said Maj. Chiofolo.

“It’s not a recruiting program,” he said. “It’s building a better citizen program. If it keeps one kid from dropping out of high school, so much the better.”

All students in grades 9 through 12 are eligible to join. Those who successfully complete at least three years and then enlist in the military after graduation will be advanced two pay grades immediately after boot camp, which could mean an extra $300 to $500 a month.

But most will never get to boot camp, said Maj. Chiofolo, a former missile launch officer who retired from the Air Force in 1995 after serving more than 20 years on active duty, ending his career as an instructor at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.

“About 92 to 93 percent never go into the military,” he said, which is okay with him as long as he keeps turning out cadets who turn into good, responsible citizens.

“There are many ways to serve our country,” he said, adding that he’s proud of those students who choose to serve their community in other ways, such as becoming a firefighter, paramedic or law enforcement officer.

Maj. Chiofolo, who commutes 30 miles daily from his home on Jacksonville’s Westside, said JROTC emphasizes discipline, character building and developing leadership skills.

“That’s a big part of what we teach,” he said.

Though he’s never had a student who made it to the Air Force Academy, Maj. Chiofolo said one female cadet of his came “real close.” She had the grades to qualify but freshmen enrollment cutbacks caused her to miss the final cut and she ended up enrolling in the ROTC program at the University of Florida instead.

“We were able to get her a scholarship,” he said.

Maj. Chiofolo is one half of the instructional staff in the JROTC unit. The other half is Master Sergeant Elizabeth Law-Wallace, a retired Air Force non-commissioned officer. A third instructor is authorized when cadet enrollment increases to 151, but Mr. Hill said that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

“It’s been a struggle to reach 100 each year,” said Mr. Hill. “We have recruitment nights throughout the year at the middle school to generate some interest.”

Board member Jesse Davis praised the JROTC program for giving cadets a strong foundation for entering adulthood and beginning careers after high school.

“It helps propel them into life and gives them opportunities they might not otherwise have,” Mr. Davis said.

In other business during last week’s meeting, the school board:

• Elected board members Dean Griffis to serve as chairman and Patricia Weeks to  as vice chair. Both will serve two-year terms.

• Received grants awarded by R.H. Davis Oil Co. to the following six schools: Westside Elementary, Macclenny Elementary, the Pre-K/Kindergarten Center, Baker County Middle School, Keller Intermediate and Baker County High School.

• Awarded certificates of merit to six members of the Hi-Q Varsity Team, which recently won the district championship and will compete for the state championship. The Hi-Q Junior Varsity Team also received certificates.

• Recognized members of the high school varsity and junior varsity volleyball teams, which Superintendent Raulerson described as “brains, beauty and athleticism all wrapped into one.”

• Awarded a plaque expressing appreciation to Mary King, a recent retiree, for 25 years as a special education instructional aide.

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