Army studying Kansas program for middle school students

? The U.S. Army wants middle school students.

The Wichita school district in south-central Kansas is one of a few nationwide offering middle school programs based on the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps curriculum. Top Army officials are studying its programs to see whether they could be a model for others nationwide.

The Army is collaborating with the National Association of School Boards to develop a so-called JROTC-plus program that would use the high school JROTC curriculum as a basis for a middle school program, Army JROTC director Col. John Vanderbleek said.

“We want to reach students at that age before they make decisions that put them at risk,” said Vanderbleek, who came to Wichita recently from Fort Monroe, Va., to see the Kansas program for himself.

The Army plans to fund a pilot program next school year, and the money will most likely go to an existing program like the one in Wichita.

Wichita’s program uses a military structure to teach civics lessons. It was started 12 years ago by JROTC supervisor and retired Army Col. Robert Hester.

Kansas State Board of Education member Dave Dennis said he plans to lobby for Wichita’s existing program to be selected as the Army’s pilot program.

“The Army’s got a lot deeper pockets than education,” he said.

The Wichita program faced some opposition when it began in 1997 because of concerns about military influence and recruiting. But Vanderbleek said little opposition is expected to the national program.

“If you get into the leadership program and see what it is, you lose suspicion that they are recruiting,” Vanderbleek said. “There’s nothing in the curriculum that focuses on military service.”

Schools will have to sell the middle school JROTC program to their communities before they can ask the Army for money. The application progress is expected to be very competitive.

Wichita’s JROTC program aims to connect students to school and encourage them to graduate, said Hester, who leads the program districtwide.

Of the eighth-grade students who were in the 2004 program, 80 percent graduated from high school last school year. That compares with a 64 percent graduation rate for those not in the program, Hester said.