Big-city JROTC is model program
By Steve Arel
U.S. Army Cadet Command
FRESH MEADOWS, N.Y. — Last spring, right after Francis Lewis High School won a national drill team title, first-year principal Musa Ali Shama reveled in excitement. Though a thousand miles away, he was as joyous as the JROTC Cadets hoisting their crown in Daytona Beach, Fla.
And he wanted to let the world know what his school, his students had achieved.
So he commissioned and erected a banner hailing the victory. This wasn’t just any banner. It takes up a quarter of the school’s façade, even dwarfing the Francis Lewis granite sign near the building’s entrance.
“We have no other banner other than the JROTC banner that says ‘national champion,’ ” Ali Shama said. “As a faculty and administration, we take a lot of pride in that. We know as adults the level of commitment it takes to achieve something like that. It’s a significant achievement not only for our school, but for the county of Queens, the city of New York and for the state of New York.”
With almost 700 Cadets, Francis Lewis’ JROTC program is the largest in the country. It’s also one of the most successful — having added a national Raider championship this fall — and, quite possibly, one of the most beloved.
Visitors to the school find JROTC’s presence inescapable. Besides the banner, the lobby is something of a shrine to JROTC. A flat screen display runs a loop that features images of Cadets in action and information on the program. Along a glass wall in the back, two poster-size blow-ups of front pages from a Cadet Command newsletter spotlighting the drill team victory are taped up. A 6-foot high spindle stand features a “scrapbook” where people can flip through month by month and see what Cadets have done over the past year. And a 20-foot-long, glass-enclosed case displays trophies and other items from the Patriot Battalion.
At Francis Lewis, Cadets are placed on pedestals by administrators, teachers and students. They, and the program as a whole, are considered assets to the school and to the community.
When a scuffle breaks out in the absence of adults, it’s usually a JROTC Cadet who breaks it up. When trash dots the hallways, it’s usually JROTC Cadets who pick it up.
No one tells them to do it. That’s just the way they have been taught since the program began in spring 1994: Be model citizens and leaders, even when no one is looking.
“The biggest mistake I ever made was underestimating kids,” said retired 1st Sgt. Richard Gogarty, Francis Lewis’ senior Army instructor. “You let them run with something, and they’ll get it done. … We’re turning out great citizens. They’re better at what they do, no matter what they do.”
Students enrolled in JROTC are familiar sites in the community. They march in parades. They clean local parks. They sing patriotic songs at retirement homes.
And they are stars in the classroom, with a program graduation rate just shy of perfect and a GPA that’s 10 points higher than the average Francis Lewis student.
“The students take the leadership skills they learn with them,” said Annette Palomino, Francis Lewis’ assistant principal. “JROTC makes them feel they’ve accomplished something, and they have. This program is the backbone of the school.”
It wasn’t always that way.
When the program started, some teachers in the school adamantly opposed its creation. They saw JROTC as a recruiting tool for the Army and felt it was an inappropriate tactic for boosting the service’s ranks.
Gogarty, one of Francis Lewis’ original instructors, set out to insert himself and JROTC into the school culture. He remembers telling fellow educators hello in those early days, only to be ignored.
Still, Gogarty overlooked the negativity and worked to educate others of the true mission of JROTC: to develop better citizens.
“I believed so much in what we were doing,” he said.
Arthur Goldstein was part of the opposition. But his view quickly changed, thanks to Gogarty.
Goldstein had a student in his English as a Second Language class, a JROTC Cadet, who was struggling with a book report, mostly because she didn’t understand the text. The Cadet explained her problem to Gogarty and pleaded for help.
Gogarty had never read the book and knew he couldn’t provide much guidance without reading the book. So, between instructing his classes and after hours, he read it and tutored the student on the book’s storyline.
The student earned a passing grade on the report.
“I’d never seen anybody do that, let alone a teacher,” Goldstein said. “I’ve been a fan (of JROTC) ever since.”
The first sergeant saw it another way.
“What good is someone who gets an A in JROTC and fails all the other subjects?” said Gogarty, who keeps tabs on all of his students by maintaining a book with the grades of each class in which they are enrolled.
Nowadays, when Gogarty and Goldstein see each other in the teacher’s cafeteria or elsewhere, Goldstein greets the first sergeant enthusiastically and with a smile.
So do others.
In fact, when other teachers and administrators encounter trouble students and students dealing with personal issues, they often turn to the JROTC instructors for guidance. They say the instructors, in having served in the military, are accustomed to handling difficult situations and adapting.
“They always turn (the students) around,” Palomino said.
Most Francis Lewis Cadets will go on to college. In fact, 20 of them have been accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point since 2003.
But for the overwhelming majority of students, their ROTC experience will end at high school. Because many are not American citizens — and for a good number, English is not their first language — they are not eligible to receive a Senior ROTC scholarship.
But those students, including Cadet battalion commander and South Korean native John Shin, have no issue with that policy. They have relished the opportunity to improve personally and professionally through JROTC.
Shin, for instance, is in his fourth year with the program. He remembers as a freshmen being shy and reserved. Speaking in front a group, for him, required considerable motivation.
That’s when Shin spoke to a friend, a senior at the time, who told him about JROTC and the difference it could make — and had made for him. Today, Shin is a lieutenant colonel, the Patriot Battalion’s highest-ranking Cadet.
As commander, he is responsible for approving battalion actions and activities and works closely with program instructors. It’s a position that requires Shin to be outspoken and give direction publicly.
“As I got more and more into JROTC, I spoke more,” he said. “I had more confidence, and it brought me to this position. This program brings a person to the top, and brings out their potential.”
Francis Lewis’ first JROTC class totaled 155 students. One of those initial Cadets was a junior named Jennifer Lewis.
In the year and a half she was in the program, Lewis rose to the rank of staff sergeant and graduated a confident, motivated woman who used what she learned to help others, working today in New York providing legal assistance to youths in the criminal justice system. Lewis’ desire to develop herself personally and professionally rubbed off on her 14-year-old daughter, Kiera, a Francis Lewis freshman who gave up health and gym classes to join JROTC in early November.
“I admire my mom a lot and want to be as great a leader as she is,” said Kiera Lewis, who remembers seeing old images at home of her mother in uniform. “JROTC is a great start.”
Jennifer Lewis encouraged her daughter to join, but left the decision up to Kiera. The younger Lewis said she thought about not taking the class until her sophomore year to ensure she adjusted to high school life and to devote time to the school’s step team.
“Then it just clicked,” Kiera Lewis said. “I decided I’m going to make the time, and it’s going to make me better in the future.”
The transition already has been beneficial, she said. In just a short time, Kiera Lewis has seen a difference in herself. Most notably, she carries herself with more confidence and evaluates situations before she acts.
“I feel like a different person,” Kiera Lewis said.
Lewis was walking to school one day recently while in uniform when a construction worker stopper her. He asked if she was a member of JROTC. When she responded, the man smiled and said she was “doing a good thing.”
“It made me feel really good,” Kiera Lewis said. “I had to call my mom.”
Francis Lewis High School, in this Queens suburb, is New York City’s second largest high school and arguably one of the nation’s most diverse. With nearly 4,600 students enrolled, the school has nearly double the capacity it was designed for more than 40 years ago.
There are so many students, two school day sessions are held, with the first starting just after 7 a.m. and the second wrapping up just before 7 p.m. There are no lockers because there’s not enough room; students bring what books and material they need to get through each day.
The hallways are so crowded during class changes that weaving through the wall of people requires a degree of skill and keeping one’s arms tucked in front of the body or turning sideways to slide against the wall.
School enrollment has posed unique challenges for JROTC, too. Cadet strength, which peaked at 572 last year, vaulted this fall to 679 — roughly 15 percent of Francis Lewis’ total student population. Ali Shama attributes the rise to the life-lessons taught and the leadership skills JROTC instills.
And like the school itself, JROTC lacks space. The program’s supply rooms are two unused bathrooms with shelves built over and around the toilets and urinals because the program wasn’t allowed to remove any fixtures or plumbing.
The main supply area has a single short center aisle measuring about a body width and a half wide. To one side are boxes of black dress shoes stacked almost to the ceiling, and dozens of Class A jackets and pants hung on poles on the other.
That’s only a small portion of what the program owns.
With so many students and so little space, Gogarty devised a plan a while back to prevent further chaos at the end of the school year. As students turned in their uniforms, Gogarty immediately sent the massive batch of clothes to the cleaners, and he left them there all summer, not picking them up until they were to be given out at the start of the next school year.
Over the years, the program has had to purchase its own vehicle, travel trailer to haul equipment and storage trailers.
It even bought its own classroom furniture after instructors found that traditional desks still cluttered rooms on inspection days, even when pushed to the side. So each JROTC room has collapsible tables and stackable chairs.
“We’ve been doing this a while,” Gogarty said. “You get smarter every year.”
At the heart of the program, of course, are the students and the life lessons they learn.
With almost 700 students and only six instructors, significant responsibility for program operations rests with the students themselves, and in particular the Cadet leadership. Senior students push their subordinates, demanding as much from them as the adult teachers.
“It’s not easy being a leader,” instructor Master Sgt. Lawrence Badia told Cadets during a session on decision-making.
JROTC classes begin with each group receiving orders of the day from a class leader. When the Army instructor takes over, the student Cadet patrols the room, scolding other students for not paying close enough attention and reinforcing direction given by the instructor.
Wednesdays, the one day a week when Cadets wear their uniforms, are devoted to inspections. Battalion leaders scrutinize the uniforms and appearances of each Cadet. They ensure nametags are straight. They ensure brass is polished. They ensure clothing is lint-free. They ensure hairstyles meet prescribed standards.
They also quiz students on basic military knowledge. And leaders expect correct answers.
When a class of first-year students missed a series of questions at a November inspection, the day before a major test on the material, the Cadet officer-in-charge chastised the group.
“Do you all want to fail?” Cadet Lt. Alex Martinez asked. “Then you all need to study, no matter what. If you don’t have time, you need to make time.”
With only 44-minute periods, there is little time to waste in the classroom. Teachers use books to guide their classes, but they frequently defer to open discussions and hands-on activities for the greatest instructional impact. The thinking is students get more from a segment of instruction by doing rather than by simply listening.
When retired Master Sgt. Peter Rompf saw a woman passed out in the road after slamming her bicycle into a car door as the driver opened it one early November morning on his way to school, he decided to get a dummy and other props for a class on treating a casualty.
“You could run into that anywhere you go,” said Rompf, who stayed with the woman, already being helped, until an ambulance arrived. “As they get older, they need to actually know how to do this. Forget about the multiple choice and true or false. You’d hate to be in a situation and say, ‘I wish I knew how to do this.’ I thought a kid probably wouldn’t know what to do.”
Much of the battalion’s focus is keeping students involved, inside and outside the classroom.
Francis Lewis teachers, by contract, are required to work six hours, 40 minutes a day. The typical day for JROTC instructors begins around 7 a.m. and ends after 6 p.m. Same, too, for most Cadets.
Though a number of classes for students end around 3 or 4 p.m., they spend two hours or more in JROTC extracurricular activities.
Besides the renown drill teams, the program also has male and female Raider squads, an honor guard, a drum corps and even a choir. On any given day, some 300 students stay after school to participate in JROTC extracurricular activities.
But competing regularly, whether locally or nationally, comes at a price. The school is unable to fund the program’s trips, so the department annually raises $60,000, which is used for airline tickets, hotels, meals and other expenses.
“The school tries to help, but there is little money for that,” Gogarty said. “We either whine about it or do something about it.”
That means, besides everything else, Cadets are also involved throughout the year in various fund-raisers, selling car wash tickets, candy and other items. The department even has a vending machine loaded with goodies that students throughout the school can access. The machine is so popular, instructors usually end up having to stock it twice a day.
The opportunity to participate, though, is something students appreciate.
Glen Higgins, a sophomore, has marched in three parades as a member of the drum corps. He said being visible in community events gives him a sense of pride and confidence.
“I feel important,” he said. “It feels good to be part of something that’s the best.”
Back at school, being part of the program makes the expectations of him by others greater.
“My teachers expect more out of me,” Higgins said. “If I mess up, some kids say, ‘You’re in JROTC. You should know better.’ You’re held to a higher standard.”
Inside the JROTC classrooms and offices sit a slew of trophies. There are some for wins at the local level, there are some for wins at the state level. There are, of course, seven national titles since 2007 — two for drill, two for academic competition and three for the “Raider” team, a sport similar to Ranger Challenge in Senior ROTC.
It’s hard to tell just how many trophies there are, without taking serious time to count them all. But the program has earned so many over the years that there’s no longer space to keep them. So to make room for new ones, Gogarty has started giving some away — 60 last year alone — to Cadets as they achieve various milestones within the program.
The national championships are staying put, he said. They represent the pinnacle of Francis Lewis’ success.
On the drill floor, the Patriot Battalion has long been a dominant force and the best in the eastern half of the country. In fact, the school’s armed and unarmed squads have won the last four Eastern Region crowns. And those victories haven’t been close.
Francis Lewis has followed up its success with national wins in demilitarized arms in 2009 and in 2007.
Justin Gates, competition director for the national drill meet held each year in Daytona Beach, Fla., gets a chance during the year to see dozens of high school teams in action and often visits those schools. He has traveled to Francis Lewis High School a couple of times and has heard people at drill meets wonder out loud about the program’s competition success.
Gates said many people often mistakenly see Francis Lewis as the recipient of favorable calls or as the beneficiary of top-rated training facilities and a school district with deep pockets. The reality, he said, is the program’s success stems from dedication to the sport.
“These people who think they have all this handed to them or by sheer magic don’t understand,” Gates said. “They do it out of hard work. … They don’t accept just being good enough in anything.”
Mother Nature and the school’s physical constraints squeeze Francis Lewis’ ability to practice as most any high school squad. Because not all students are out of class by 3 p.m., practices begin with less than half the team. Cadets run through routines as much as possible, with most everyone in place by 5 p.m.
But by that time, it’s already dark outside. And even if there is a glimmer of light, it’s too cold to work outdoors.
So Cadets are relegated to practicing in the cafeteria, since the gym is in use until the final bell rings just before 7 p.m.
The lunchroom provides some space, but it’s not ideal. Cadets find themselves constantly having to maneuver around columns as they march. Tossing rifles into the air is out because the ceiling, made of metal plates, is just 8 feet high.
The ceiling limitations also prevent the four-member color guard from running through its complete sequence. Skylights that reach several more feet above the main ceiling provide some
space for the group to work on unfurling its flags and saluting with colors. But to march around in formation, they only carry the bottom portion of their staffs that come within a couple of feet of the ceiling.
All that’s why the teams also practice for several hours on Saturdays, when they can sometimes use the more spacious gym.
Because of the challenges, “when we win, it makes it all the more sweet,” Gogarty said.
Despite the obstacles Cadets face each year, he sees the keys to their success as simple: planning and preparation.
“It’s not winning those competitions that really matter, it’s the preparedness they learn,” he said. “If they prepare for something in life or college the way they prepare for these things, that’s why they’re winners. Everyone is always trying to find out why our drill team is so good or why our Raider team is so good. They’re like, let me video tape them or see them do push-ups. They’re missing the obvious. We practice.”
Gogarty says his greatest disappointment would be seeing a student fall short of his or her potential after graduation. He gets reinforcement from several of his former Cadets who attend St. John’s University, just a couple miles down the road from Francis Lewis.
They come back to the school, some of them a couple of times a week, to talk with current Cadets about post-high school opportunities and to offer further encouragement.
One of those is Marc McMenamin, a scholarship freshman with the senior ROTC program at St. John’s who passes along lessons learned and encourages non-JROTC students to join. A four-year Cadet at Francis Lewis, the former honor guard commander has used his experience at Francis Lewis to excel in college.
“It made me a leader and put me way above people who didn’t come to this program,” McMenamin said. “At times, I think this program is harder than what I’m in now.”
His experience in JROTC, he said, shaped his life and put him on a positive path. McMenamin tells other students that if they dedicate themselves, the program will set them up for lifelong success, too.
After serving as an Army office, McMenamin wants to someday be the secretary of defense — a goal he doesn’t consider too lofty.
“I like being a leader,” he said. “I have ideas I think will change the way the military functions. Francis Lewis teaches you to shoot for the top.”
Which is where those at Francis Lewis expect the JROTC program to be. Palomino, the school’s assistant principal, has traveled the last two years with the drill teams to Daytona Beach. She plans to be back there again in May, at her daughter’s urging, despite her daughter expecting to play in a collegiate softball postseason tournament at the same time.
“It felt as close to the Olympics as I could get,” Palomino said of her experience last spring. “Winning the nationals brought tears to my eyes.
“It’s amazing the impact six people can have on 700 students. Anyone who walks into Francis Lewis knows about JROTC. If they were to leave, it would destroy the culture of Francis Lewis. The love they have for these kids is infectious, and I’m infected.”