NEW PORT RICHEY
Raising the flag at 8 a.m. is part of the daily regimen for members of the Gulf High School JROTC. It's a solemn duty, carried out with reverence and respect.
Along with presenting the colors at school and community events and all the marching drills and physical training, it's probably the kind of thing most outsiders associate with JROTC programs.
But the kids in the Naval JROTC at Gulf have plenty of smarts to boot, as evidenced by their recent showing in the Secretary of the Navy's annual National Academic Exam.
The five-member Gulf High team made up of cadets Aaron Heusted, Cheryl Jennett, James Weber, Cody Boyet and Matthew Harmaz took first place in the nation out of 1,534 teams.
That's a "first-time-ever" kind of honor for Gulf High, Pasco County and the state of Florida.
Two other Gulf teams did well, placing in the top 100, coming in at 26 and 45.
"It's the most amazing thing I've achieved so far," said Aaron, 17, who hopes the feat helps him land an ROTC scholarship at the University of South Florida. "It's something only a few can brag about — being No. 1 in the nation."
"We're no longer a second-rate school," said Cody, 16, a military brat, who plans on serving his country either as an officer in the Coast Guard or the Navy. "And it was great to beat our rival, Flanagan."
That would be the Naval JROTC program at Flanagan High in Pembroke Pines, a top JROTC program in the state where Unit Commander Stephen Nesthus served before coming to Gulf two years ago.
Nesthus, who had seen success at Flanagan, brought a stronger emphasis on academics to Gulf. He is assisted by CPO Jose Rodriguez.
"We do everything the other (JROTC) programs do," Nesthus said. "We just have a different way of motivating them."
No doubt students learn a lot in the JROTC class they attend one period each day. It includes instruction in biology, chemistry, math and geography, as well as leadership and survival skills. Nesthus also includes studies in health, nutrition, navigation, astronomy, naval tactics, and military and international law. Add to that lessons in proper etiquette, physical fitness training and precision drills to prepare for the eight to nine sanctioned meets held throughout the school year.
Cadets are also encouraged to take ACT and SAT prep classes funded by the Navy. And while some students don uniforms one day a week as required, others are told to "dress for success" — collared shirts, ties, dress pants and sometimes jackets for the gents; proper office attire for the ladies.
That's preparation for the future of all Gulf cadets, whether they choose to pursue a career in the military, college or the work force, Nesthus said.
He's not pushy, he said, but he does have some preference of where his cadets go.
"I want the kids to be educated," Nesthus said. "I'd rather see them go to college for at least two years, preferably four. Then if they want to enlist, I think the military couldn't be a better option for them, and I'll help them do that, too."
Even so, seven out of 11 seniors in the program are headed for the military, including Cadet Lt. Karisa Vega, who signed up for the Air Force.
That, she said, was her father's idea. "He told me, 'You either go into the military or college, there's no in between.' "
As for the award-winning academic team, only Cody is absolutely sure about pursuing a career in the military, something he says he has known since he was about 4 years old.
After USF, Aaron plans on becoming a nuclear engineer. Cheryl Jennett, the captain of the academic team, whose GPA landed her in the top 10 of this year's graduating class, plans to study microbiology at the University of Florida and eventually become a doctor. James Weber is enrolling at ITT Tech to study electrical engineering. Matthew Harmaz said he's thinking about the NASCAR Technical Institute.
"I'm not sure about going into the military," he said, noting that would be just fine with his commander. "He just wants us to do something with our life. He wants us to reach our full potential."