Plum junior ROTC program needs to recruit cadets to stay in operation
Plum School District's Air Force Junior ROTC program is in jeopardy of being shut down due to a lack of cadets.
Enrollment for program has been up and down the past few years. It was placed on probation in 2016-17 for having only 72 cadets, and again this school year for having 90. The Air Force minimum requirement to keep a program going is 100.
Retired Air Force Col. Richard Peterson, the program's senior instructor, needs to meet the standard by October or it will be formally closed next year.
The Air Force has a contract with the district to provide the program through 2021 if the district meets the enrollment quota. The district would be put on a waiting list of some 80 schools if it is disbanded and reapplies for a unit.
“I think the impact is self evident,” Peterson said about being shut down. “You have one less elective for kids to broaden their horizons. Are they going to have one more study hall?”
Peterson has led the junior ROTC program the past four years. It has been offered in Plum since 2006 and provides community service opportunities, as well as physical and educational competitions. It and is not a direct pipeline to any military branch.
“It's all designed to create better leaders, better citizens,” Peterson said. “We're educating the kids, and our part of that is to keep their interest.”
Peterson stepped up recruiting last year by participating in Veterans Day programs at Oblock Junior High. The cadets showed the middle school students how to properly fold the flag, did basic drills, and talked about the program. They also went back to the school before Thanksgiving to play games with the younger students.
“It's a wonderful program. I think Col. Peterson does a nice job and we would support it any way possible,” Oblock Principal Joe Fishell said.
Those visits helped secure freshmen cadets Aidan Bell, Justin Hairston and Lauren Gras, all 14, who have hopes of joining the military after graduating high school.
“That's what really made me interested in the corps itself,” said Aidan. “What I like about it is the cocurricular activities that they have, the people and, of course, my instructors. It's like a secondary family to me.”
Justin and Lauren said they each have family members in the military and hope to follow in their footsteps.
This year's cadet crop features 15 seniors, including Lt. Col. Victoria Ruby and Maj. Kaylee Olszewski. They signed on in ninth grade not knowing everything about it, then decided to stay for four years because of the friendships and fun the program provided.
“There's something for everyone,” Olszewski said. “It's a way for kids to stay involved, keep them out of trouble and find a group of friends that will be with them no matter what. I honestly had no idea what ROTC was. I thought we had to stand in a line and do pushups for class.”
Ruby said the program was a way to “get out of my comfort zone” and learn new things.
Both seniors plan to attend college with ROTC scholarships.
School board member and retired Air Force Maj. Scott Kolar was on board when the Plum program started and served as an instructor for eight years.
“It's always challenging to create a program where a program's never existed,” he said. “It's a great program.”
Peterson believes the program will survive and thrive thanks to its young people.
“I'm confident that the kids are the best recruiters,” he said. “When you have almost 50 first-year cadets, they're going to bring their friends and word travels fast. I think the program's on good footing. I'm very positive. I think we'll make it. I have a good sense.”
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer.