Topeka Curtis Kelley is both a Topeka High School teacher and a Chief Warrant Officer 3 in the United States Marine Corps.
As the leader of the school’s Marine junior ROTC program, he takes students through military-like physical training two days a week. Other days, he teaches academics, including vocabulary and military history. And he drills them with strict uniform inspections.
“Mediocrity is not a term used in my classroom,” Kelley told the Kansas State Board of Education on Wednesday.
Kelley believes the conditioning his students receive is every bit as rigorous as what they would get from a traditional physical education class.
But instead of getting a full PE credit, his students get only a half credit for a full year of participation. They have to take part for two full years to earn the one unit of PE credit required for high school graduation.
State board member David Dennis of Wichita thinks that should change.
Elevating junior ROTC programs to full-credit PE classes, Dennis said, would not only encourage more students to take part in the program and improve their physical fitness, it might also boost the participation rate in the programs, which are struggling to keep their certification because of declining enrollment numbers.
“The whole reason we’re looking at it is that today, 25 percent of our high school graduates are eligible to go into the military,” said Dennis, a 29-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
He said that’s mainly due to one of three reasons: either they’re not physically fit; they can’t pass the entrance test; or “they’ve made some poor decisions in life,” such as committing offenses that disqualify them from military service.
The program at Topeka High is one of only two Marine junior ROTC programs in Kansas. The other, at Northeast Magnet School in the Wichita school district, is currently on probation because of lack of participation.
The Lawrence school district does not offer a junior ROTC program for any branch of the military.
Kelley said programs need to maintain at least 100 participants to stay certified. His has 148 students.
But not everyone agrees that junior ROTC belongs in the health and physical education curriculum, including many PE teachers.
In Kansas, the decision about whether to grant credit, and how much credit to grant, is up to local boards of education.
Mark Thompson, who directs the Healthy Kansas Schools project for the State Department of Education, said that in Wichita, school officials tried to develop a “crosswalk” between PE and junior ROTC to see if they had enough in common to justify offering PE credit.
“A crosswalk was developed,” Thompson said. “It did involve a heavy amount of the Wichita physical educators who looked at the crosswalk and did not find what they felt was significant enough overlap to sign off on a PE credit for JROTC participation.”
Some members of the state board indicated they would support a state rule granting junior ROTC programs full status as PE classes. But board member Sally Cauble of Liberal said she was not willing to infringe on “local control.”
The board is expected to revisit the issue next month and may vote on specific proposals for assigning credit to junior ROTC programs.