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Duluth School District might cut ROTC funding

Jason Dahlen (center) and Devin Erdahl, juniors at Duluth East High School and ROTC enrollees, answer questions from Max Dembrowski, 14, who attended the school's open house Monday. The Duluth school district's ROTC program is in danger of shutting down.(Bob King/Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH - A Duluth program that propelled one student to a spot as guard for President Bush and another to a full scholarship at the U.S. Naval Academy is in danger of closing.

The Duluth School District is considering eliminating its Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a citizenship program at the Secondary Technical Center, to help erase its $4.5 million budget deficit. NJROTC, which has lost students over the years, costs about $170,000 a year to run.

Staff and students say the loss would be felt beyond the walls of the technical center because it pushes kids to get involved in the community and become responsible citizens.

"They are going to lose leaders if they shut this down, leaders that would help this community," said Hailee Dryke, a Duluth Central senior who is enrolled in ROTC.

Course work ranges from academic to extracurricular by teaching U.S. government and naval sciences and by incorporating physical training and drill techniques. Cadets, who are required to wear naval uniforms, also engage in community service by leading efforts to clean up highways and sponsoring dinners for veterans.

Participation fell from 120 students in 2006 to 56 this year, said Jim Arndt, principal at the Secondary Technical Center. He attributes the decline in part to enrollment decline in the district.

But elimination of the seven-period high school day makes it harder for students to find room in their schedule for the course, he said. The program also lost students when it no longer could satisfy a physical education credit.

All of the military program's components incorporate the program's mantra: honor, courage and commitment, according to Peter Palen, an NJROTC instructor.

"We do a lot of character education that you don't see in a lot of other classes; it kind of makes us one-of-a-kind," Palen said. "No matter what students decide to do after graduation, those lessons of self-discipline, self-control, citizenship ... will help them be successful."

One student's experience in NJROTC -- John Dahl -- led to him becoming a Marine guard on a helicopter shuttling then-President George W. Bush. Another -- Mike Niemi -- landed a full ride to the Naval Academy after his involvement in NJROTC.

Zach Ceryes, a senior at Central, said it helped pull him out of his shell.

"I went into high school really quiet without many friends, but now I'm a lot more talkative," said Ceryes, who climbed to the rank of executive officer in NJROTC this year. "It's been a really great program for me."

As the school district scrambles to find $4.5 million in savings, it's hard to justify running an extra-curricular option with a shrinking student following, said Joe Hill, assistant superintendent for the Duluth public schools.

"Nobody wants to cut anything," Hill said. "But, unfortunately, we have to, and we are looking at participating numbers being the driving factor for some of these decisions."

Eliminating the program would be a loss for students, he said. "This program is very unique and we certainly see it as an asset; that's why it's challenging for us to consider cutting it."

But the decision isn't set in stone, and cadets are out in full force this week recruiting at area high school open houses. Palen said he hopes it will make a difference.

"NJROTC is another area that provides a place for kids to find that sense of belonging, a place to feel recognized and respected for their accomplishments," Palen said. "For some kids, it's programs like this that keep them coming to school."

No other school districts in the region have ROTC programs, the technical center's Arndt said.

The Duluth School Board will vote on the NJROTC program when it adopts a new budget in early March.