Penn Hills JROTC cadets could finish military studies in Plum | TribLIVE.com
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Michael DiVittorio

Penn Hills School District’s Navy Junior ROTC cadets may have a chance to finish out their military studies in a new district and new branch of service.

Superintendent Nancy Hines said the board is considering a one-year agreement with the Plum School District that would allow for about 14 students to participate in Plum School District’s Air Force Junior ROTC program.

Those eligible would have participated in the Penn Hills program for at least a year, so no potential new recruits would be allowed to transfer. School directors tabled an agreement to a special July 15 meeting in order to explore the Plum opportunity further.

“We feel this is the patriotic thing to do,” Hines said. “It’s about citizenship. These are established students trying to get consecutive years of participation so they can go in (to the service) with an advance rank should they join the military.”

The district would pay Plum about $1,200 in tuition per cadet as part of the deal. Parents would be required to provide transportation.

“At a time where we’re shifting resources, we have to be able to justify sending students somewhere else,” Hines said.

The Penn Hills students have to go somewhere else if they want to complete their JROTC efforts because the district will not offer the program next school year.

The Navy placed Penn Hills on probationary status the past two years due to lack of recruits.

The district had two options in May to keep the program alive: add 70 cadets to reach the 100-cadet requirement for federal funding, or at least have 50 total cadets and pay for the program.

Neither were accomplished by the end of the June deadline when the board adopted its financial recovery plan and 2019-20 budget.

Board President Erin Vecchio said it’s disappointing the district had to cut the program, but is optimistic about the Plum opportunity.

“It’s great for the kids,” she said. “We couldn’t afford it because there was not enough kids in the program. They have to provide their own transportation. I don’t want to disrupt anybody’s education.

“These are really tremendous kids, good leaders. Their conduct is usually exemplary. Our community loves these kids and seeing them in uniform. We haven’t heard anybody say they’re against it.”

Penn Hills Junior Alexia Zappi, cadet commander, is credited with coming up with the Plum idea.

Plum ready for recruits

Plum’s Air Force JROTC program is run by Col. Richard Peterson and Master Sgt. Kevin Butler, both retired.

They instructed 110 cadets last school year. It’s unclear how many cadets will be involved in 2019-20.

Peterson said he met with Penn Hills cadets in late May when the opportunity was discussed.

“It was almost the same because we have the same cultures,” Peterson said. “Even though it’s Navy and we’re Air Force, the cadets are cadets. They understand what we’re about.”

Peterson explained, if the agreement is approved, the cadets would participate in a class the last period of the school day, and be able to participate in JROTC extracurricular activities.

It may require Penn Hills students to have a study hall the period before for travel time to Plum.

“I think everybody’s supportive,” Peterson said. “We’ll do anything we can, and our administration’s really flexible.”

He said there should not be a problem with changing military branches within JROTC, and would work to ensure Penn Hills cadets keep their ranks and any medals in the transfer.

Plum Superintendent Brendan Hyland said his school board may take formal action on the issue in August, and believes everyone wants to support the students.

“Whenever your neighbor asks for assistance, you do everything you can to find a way to do what you can do to help them out,” Hyland said. “We know our JROTC students are special kids and we have no doubt that the Penn Hills kids who want to complete their ROTC work will be of a similar makeup. We will treat those kids as if they were are own kids.”

Plum received interest in its JROTC program from Riverview and Franklin Regional students, but none have transferred.

Plum’s JROTC cadets recently participated in the academic portion of the National Leadership & Academic Bowl. It was hosted by the College Options Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Plum tied for fifth out of 16 Air Force teams. The group placed in the top 60 out of 700+ teams in a separate contest in order to get the national spotlight.

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