Incoming ninth-grader Asia Jones is so determined to do well in high school that she is enrolling out of district at Atholton High. There, she will participate in the school's Junior ROTC program, which emphasizes citizenship, teamwork and academic success. Asia's home school, Long Reach, does not offer the program.
The 15-year-old said friends "told me they [Junior ROTC officials] have a no-tolerance policy and I like that" because it sets high standards for students. "I like the discipline. A lot of people ... don't have it, and I want to be one of the ones who does," she said.
Last week, Asia and other first-year cadets got a taste of that discipline during Atholton's Junior ROTC orientation. They spent two days learning to march and take commands from student officers.
Experienced cadets lined up squads of teenagers on the school parking lot for drills. The new kids' shorts and T-shirts contrasted sharply with their student leaders' Army uniforms.
Later in the week, the group traveled to Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia. The teens lived in barracks and tested their physical abilities on obstacle courses and lengthy marches. The orientation was not required, but about 50 new and experienced Junior ROTC students signed up.
Chaperone Debbie O'Brien is the parent of a ninth-grade cadet, Sarah. O'Brien said, "I think the sense of confidence is one of the things that I really saw among the older kids, the leaders."
She observed that self-confidence growing in Sarah last week. One march "was over four miles each way. I know my daughter said that toward the end it was really hard, but she felt so proud of herself that she had hiked that far."
Junior ROTC - a graded elective course - is offered at about 3,000 high schools nationwide. Local departments of education and the U.S. military provide funding. Participants can take part in the program for one year or remain throughout high school. Unlike college ROTC, no military service is required.
Retired Army Col. James McGrory said, "Character education is a big buzzword in the education community now," but it has always been an integral part of Junior ROTC.
McGrory teaches military science and heads Atholton's program. Sgt. 1st Class Lorenza Searcy also teaches military science at Atholton.
One of the objectives of the program is encouraging teenagers to graduate from high school. Upperclassmen tutor fellow cadets to help them maintain a minimum 2.0 grade point average.
"I think it will definitely help my grades," said Asia, adding that in Junior ROTC, "When you're told [to do] something, you do it."
In addition to tutoring, students run much of the program.
"The battalion commander and her staff meet with me to decide how we're going to teach the class throughout the year. ... The senior students actually teach some of the classes to the newer cadets," McGrory said.
That commander is one of 35 Junior ROTC cadets coming to Atholton from out of district.
Said Lt. Col. Laura Bolton: "I came to Atholton because I've always been interested in the military. After high school, I plan to do Army ROTC in college."
The 17-year-old senior's home school is Hammond High. She said she has enjoyed Junior ROTC's leadership opportunities. "After your freshman year, you're leading people," she said. "Nothing compares to actually being forced to lead other people. It's hands-on throughout the year."
Atholton Assistant Principal Robert Bruno noted that participating in Junior ROTC is one of few ways that Howard County students may attend a school out of district.
Bruno called Junior ROTC, "one of the flagship programs at Atholton" with about 145 students participating. The highly rated battalion was inspected by representatives from the Pentagon and the Army in 2002-2003 and received 999 points out of 1,000. Last year, the program won a statewide competition.
McGrory, who is hoping to compete at the national level, said one purpose of the orientation was to "give us a head start on the year."
Another goal was helping students feel comfortable at their new school. Ninth-grade cadets spent orientation time touring the building.
O'Brien said the orientation helped her daughter's transition from middle school.
"There was just a sense of accomplishment from her," O'Brien said. " 'If I can do this, I can make it through high school just fine.' "
Three county high schools offer Junior ROTC programs. Information: Atholton (Army), 410-313-7065; Howard (Army), 410-313-2867; Oakland Mills (Air Force), 410-313-6945.