Every Wednesday at exactly 6:30 a.m., while most of their classmates may be still packing their lunches and getting ready to head out of the door, a small group of Lansdowne High School students is already at the school, seated in a classroom at the back of the building, ready to start the day.
The students, part of the school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, are there for a weekly JROTC staff meeting, a student-led assembly where they discuss any issues the corps faces and its plans for the next week.
While many seniors at the school are now gearing up to start their college applications or are considering career options after graduation in the spring, the 85 students in the school's JROTC program may have even bigger decisions to make.
Instructors say the program does not push students to pursue a military career after graduation, but participants are undoubtedly prepared for a military experience, should they wish to choose that option.
Lansdowne High's JROTC program, one of the oldest in the county, is in its 22nd year at the school, and despite a slight drop in recent years in participation, is excelling, said 1st Sgt. Victor Vaughan (U.S. Army, Ret.).
Vaughan runs the program along with Lt. Col. Glenn Cook ( U.S. Army, Ret.), which is officially designated as an elective at the school.
The commitment the class requires of the students, however, extends beyond what most other classes might ask. From uniform days to early morning meetings and special training days, students who sign up for JROTC don't just sign up for a class. They sign up for an experience that Cook and Vaughan hope will help determine the trajectory of the rest of the teens' lives, hopefully influencing them for the better.
Although the name leads some to believe that JROTC is essentially the first step toward a career in the military, that is far from reality, said Vaughan.
The goal "is to motivate people to become better citizens," he said. "And to help provide an opportunity for them to understand what life is all about."
The most immediate and important goal of the program for each kid who steps through the door, Vaughan and Cook say, is graduation.
From there, kids have a variety of options, they say. But graduation from high school is the key.
"All of these kids need discipline and structure, and we provide that," Vaughan said.
In each class, which is held every other day for 90 minutes, students focus on one of three dedications intended to help them become more well-rounded: study time, drills or physical training.
All of the classes work to help build the students into successful adults, the men say.
In classroom sessions, they learn strategies to help them make informed and logical decisions and think through processes.
In drills, they learn discipline and how to work together. In physical training, they learn perseverance and hard work.
"The kids we have in this program are some of the best in the school," Cook said. "A lot of the things they're going to see in this program are the same things they're going to see after this, in real life."
Lansdowne is one of 11 county schools with a JROTC program and one of two with an Army JROTC program. Five county high schools have Marine Corps programs, three have Navy and Kenwood High has Air Force.
Lansdowne High Principal Kenneth Miller has high praise for his school's JROTC program, which he's had the chance to work closely with during the five years he has served as principal at the school.
"I think it's an amazing program," Miller said, adding that Cook and Vaughan, who together have a combined 48 years of military service between them, are the key to why the program has been so successful at his school.
"They're invested in our students," he said.
Although the program is run by former military members, Cook and Vaughan do not push the students to pursue military careers after graduation, Miller said.
Rather, they simply use the program as a positive addition to the instruction the students get in their regular classes in order to help them develop the life skills they will need in the future no matter what path they choose to take, he said..
"They're invested in our kids as students, as athletes," Miller said. "It gives [the kids] structure. It gives them a sense of belonging."
When Lansdowne senior Edward Mills arrived for his first day of school at Lansdowne in October of his freshman year, he was looking for just the kind of sense of belonging that Miller said so many of Lansdowne's JROTC students have found.
"I was kind of scared," the native of England and current Arbutus resident said. "It kind of helped me out throughout the year."
Now, he said, he thinks he will likely enter the Army after graduation.
Although the program is available to, and works well for, all students, some who have benefited the most are those who entered high school in need of more structure and accountability in their lives, Vaughan and Cook said.
Until he took the job at Lansdowne, Vaughan, a former drill sergeant, said he had no idea what kinds of adversity kids in high school were dealing with, at home or in the classroom.
"It has been an eye-opening experience," agreed Cook.
But, Vaughan said, "At a certain point, all these kids, they grow up."
Current Command Sgt. Maj. RJ Siebert, a senior, said he is one of those students who grew up.
On the first day of JROTC class as a ninth-grader, Siebert said he was scared beyond words. In time, however, he said he became more confident in himself and more comfortable in the program.
Today, he is responsible for helping to mentor younger students new to the program and for running battalion drills and the program's color guard. As a result, he said, he has become more confident in himself as a leader and has improved his own ability to deal with challenges.
He has also had to learn how to lead all kinds of different personalities and skill levels.
"Some of [the new kids] tend to not respect authority," Siebert said, adding that his role requires that he and the other JROTC upperclassmen learn how to interact with and engage each student who joins the program.
"Not all kids react to the full-on screaming and yelling," he said.
Siebert's experience in the JROTC program at Lansdowne has made the decision of what to do after high school easier.
He said he plans to join the Marine Corps and focus on cyber security or a career in military police.
"This is the only class where I can actually use something that I've learned here in the real world," Siebert said.