DADE CITY — The U.S. Navy has decided to shut down 19 Naval Junior ROTC programs at the end of June, including the one at Pasco High School.
The move came down to one simple fact: The schools have not fielded the required minimum number of cadets — 100 — in at least five years. Pasco High's NJROTC enrollment this year is 50.
"We cannot maintain units that consistently fail to meet minimum enrollment standards and are not in compliance with NJROTC program directives," Rear Adm. David F. Steindl, commander of Naval Service Training Command in Illinois, said in a news release.
The news hit the school's cadets hard when they heard about it Thursday. By Friday, they sported "Save ROTC" T-shirts and had begun planning a way to keep the program.
"We were all in amazement," said junior Austen Crowder, the unit's executive officer, who wore a T-shirt proclaiming "Chicks dig the uniform."
"Then it turned into disappointment, a saddened mood," Crowder said. "Once we started talking, everyone got energized to the point we could save it. We're going to work hard to save it."
The T-shirts are but the first step, said sophomore Hayley Smith, the unit's public affairs officer. The cadets plan to lobby lawmakers with e-mails, letters and videos supporting their efforts.
"A lot of cadets want to fly up to D.C. to protest," Smith said. "It's not just Pasco High School that's being affected. It's the community."
It's also the students.
Smith said the program helped her turn her life around.
"I used to get in a lot of trouble. I was really disrespectful to people and did things I shouldn't be doing," she related. "After being in ROTC I have straight A's now, and I've learned a lot about respect. It's okay to swallow your pride once in a while and say, 'Yes, sir.' "
Junior Cynthia Rodriguez shared a similar story.
As a freshman she had horrible grades and got into "serious trouble." She went to tutoring with an ROTC member and learned about the program. She decided to join.
Her grades soared and her attitude improved. She credited the atmosphere of support and caring in the unit.
"When we come in here, we're weak. We think we can't even do a pushup," said Rodriguez, now squad leader for the unit's second platoon. "But when we get out of here, we're strong, not only physically but mentally. And you feel like you've accomplished something. … I really don't want this to be my last year."
Unit commander John McGuire, in his second year at the school, said he has tried several efforts to bring in new recruits. But unlike more successful programs such as the one at Gulf High School, Pasco High's unit has not proved a draw. This year, for instance, 65 incoming freshmen indicated an interest, but only 21 signed up.
"A lot of it has to do with the culture of the area," McGuire said. "I can't put my finger on any specific reason."
Crowder suggested that the ROTC simply doesn't have enough people talking about it positively. He hoped that now isn't too late to generate some backing.
But it might be.
Only the secretary of the Navy can establish or "disestablish" ROTC units, said Lt. Charity Hardison, public affairs officer for the Naval Service Training Command in Illinois. "At this point, there are no actions Pasco High School can take that will warrant a reversal of the decision, or another review of the decision."
The cadets still plan to try.
"We may not have a chance," acknowledged Rodriguez, the squad leader. "But we still want it, because it's important to us."
McGuire said he will work with the students to get them into the proper elective courses for next year, and will try to ensure that their ROTC credits count toward graduation. He said usually students must complete three years of the program for the ROTC credits to be effective.
If anything, he said, the cadets will take one final lesson from this situation, that of standing up for themselves and letting their voices be heard.
"We may lose," he said, "but at least you went down with a fight."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.