For over 500 students in Howard County, the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs at Howard, Atholton and Oakland Mills high schools offer a sense of belonging, but also the chance to learn responsibility and leadership skills.
"These cadets are more than capable of running this program," said Lt. Col. William Reinhart, a training corps teacher at Atholton. "The instructors just provide insight and guidance with the military structure."
Any high school student from the county can apply for an officer training program at one of the three participating high schools, regardless of whether he or she lives within these schools' districts.
Participants in the program, called cadets, have the opportunity to move up in rank and to run parts of the programs, such as community outreach efforts and event operations. In other cases, students are put in charge of drill teams.
"For me, personally, I've learned a lot responsibility," said Brooke Lilly, a senior at Atholton who is in charge of one of the school's drill teams. This year is her fourth in the school's training corps program.
"I used to not do so good in school, but now I have all A's," she said. "It's taught me a lot of responsibility, and time management was a big thing. And accountability for everything, making sure you have everything in place."
Bryson Tullis is a senior at Oakland Mills and a core commander in the school's junior officer training program, which is the only Air Force program in Howard County. The programs at Atholton and Howard operate under the guidance of the U.S. Army.
"My sister was a group commander last year and I thought, 'Anything she can do, I can do better,'" Bryson said.
One of his responsibilities is to captain one of Oakland Mills' drill teams, which are preparing for the Howard County Drill Competition on Saturday at Atholton.
"We're going to do the best we can, and we're going to win," Bryson said.
After school on Friday, he shouted instructions at his team as they practiced marching maneuvers in the school's parking lot. Bryson's team will be graded on its precision and synchronization.
"Forward, march! Right flank," he said as the team walked in unison forward, then turned to the right.
Bryson said the training corps program has helped him to overcome shyness.
"I was a lot more quiet and reserved before," he said. "Since I've joined the program, I've improved my public speaking skills."
"We push people beyond their comfort zones," said Major Roger Gauert, a training corps instructor at Atholton. "We give them the tools to succeed in life: discipline, time management skills."
Gauert said that the course component of the junior officer training program features lessons for life after graduation, such as resume creation and job interview skills.
"It gives them such a foot forward in the world," he said.
Training corps instructors work with cadets every year instead of a semester or two, Gauert said.
"We have them for four years, so they learn me and I learn them," Gauert said. "[Freshmen] you didn't think would make it out of high school — in their senior year, they're core commanders."
"This is the best job I've ever had," said Lt. Col. Patricia Marshall, a junior officer training instructor at Howard. "When I was in the military, the young people were older than these kids. With these kids, they're really at the age when I can help them launch."
This is Marshall's 13th year teaching at Howard.
"The students come back, and they write letters saying, 'Thank you so much,'" she said. "Because of the program, I've changed so much."
Last week, a few of Marshall's cadets practiced their unarmed exhibition drill routine on the school's tennis courts. Many of their moves involved rhythmic clapping and stepping.
"We take step moves and transform them into our style," said junior Ogechi Elemuo, who commands Atholton's unarmed exhibition team.
"It's like a military step team," sophomore cadet Niya Ghee said. "It's really technical and precise, but it's also the most creative [drill] team."
Ghee and her teammates said that they like being on the team because of the creativity, but also because they connect with each other.
"We're all sisters," Ogechi said.
"It has a family feel to it," Niya said. "I love each and every one of them."