By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – In a darkened classroom at Central High School students are intently watching a film on astronomy. The subject is part of the curriculum for the Air Force Junior ROTC program at the school – the fifth largest such program in the nation.
The Central High School program was recently acknowledged for its accomplishments in drill team competition by the School Committee and while that aspect of the program is a popular one among the students, it is not the only aspect of the program that attracts students, Col. Tom Cleland, the chair of the Aerospace Science Department and commander of the program, explained to Reminder Publications.
The ROTC is an elective that is available for every grade, he said. Currently there are 485 students in the program.
The ROTC is a “citizenship building program,” Cleland said. “It’s just regular students who take it as an elective.”
He stressed the program is not recruiting students into the military. “We go out of our way not to be perceived as recruiters,” Cleland said.
Statistics show that ROTC students are no more likely to join the military than students who are not in the program, however ROTC students do have a 100 percent high school graduation rate and about 90 percent go on to higher education.
“The main objective is college prep,” Cleland said.
Cleland, a 26-year veteran of the Air Force retired in 1991 and began teaching in 1993. He and the rest of his staff are all full-time certified teachers. They conduct 22 to 25 classes a day in four classrooms.
He added that it is not for every student. Part of the program requires students wear their uniform at least one day a week – Wednesdays at Central – and ROTC members must adhere to hairstyles that are meet Air Force standards.
They must also match behavioral standards for the program. Cleland said that about half of the students who try it, don’t come back for second year.
Twenty-five percent of the time in the program is dedicated to physical training, a requirement set by Congress, Cleland said.
He explained the fourth year of the program is an honors course in which teaches management. The seniors are assigned to classes to act as role models and mentors. During that year, they learn skills such as consumer economics, how to write a resume and public speaking.
“It teaches them things that they don’t get in other classes,” he said.
Although there are various clubs for the ROTC students, the drill teams are popular. Cleland said there are seven drill team squads and they were competing the national championships for Air Force Junior ROTC program on march 22 and 23 in Washington D.C.
In one classroom, Cleland showed shelves crowded with the awards the drill teams have won over the years.
He said the students in the drill teams practice for 90 minutes to two hours daily after school and have won a national championship.
Cleland won’t be able to accompany his students to the competition, but said he will be with them as they march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Holyoke.