Military program coming to Kennewick High School

KENNEWICK -- Kennewick High School will form a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps unit this fall, making it the only Tri-City high school with the military program.

The district has received approval from the Air Force, district officials said. Kennewick School Board members gave their final approval during a recent meeting.

The school still has work to do to make room for the program, which aims to serve about 100 students, but Principal Van Cummings said he's excited for what JROTC will offer.

Such programs promote academic excellence while also providing mentoring and encouraging kids to stay in school, he said.

"It's just another hook-in for students to find success in school," Principal Van Cummings told the Herald.

JROTC is an offshoot of programs offered by branches of the military to prepare college students to become officers.

High school students who become JROTC cadets are issued uniforms, participate in military training and take classes on military topics, citizenship and leadership. They aren't required to join the military after high school, but the armed forces often offer incentives -- such as accelerated promotion -- to those with JROTC experience.

Cummings began pursuing a JROTC unit at Kennewick High earlier this year, with the assistance of district officials. He helped bring an Air Force JROTC unit to Charles Francis Adams High School in Clarkston when he was principal there.

The district will be responsible for providing some benefits and 25 percent of the salaries of two retired military personnel -- one commissioned officer and one noncommissioned officer -- who will teach and lead the program. But other expenses for the unit, including classroom materials, will be covered by the federal government.

"It's a pretty economical way to add two people to our staff," Cummings said.

Air Force officials will advertise the job to retired commissioned and noncommissioned officers. However, the district will interview all candidates and have final say in who is hired to run the program, Cummings said. A Kennewick High administrator will also travel to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama this summer for training on working with and supervising a JROTC unit.

Schools in Walla Walla and Yakima have U.S. Army JROTC units but there are relatively few such programs in Washington. The only other Air Force JROTC programs in Eastern Washington besides the one in Clarkston are in Spokane and its nearby suburb of Medical Lake.

Budget cuts at the federal level have often stalled or delayed efforts to start new programs. The Richland School District has requested to start an Army unit but is still on a waiting list, said Claudia Cooley, the district's director of career and technical education.

Finding space for the unit at Kennewick High is a challenge, Cummings said. The school has several locations on its downtown Kennewick campus under consideration but the unit will need a classroom, ideally large enough to split cadets into two groups, as well as office and storage space.

But a lot of effort will also go toward spreading information about the new JROTC unit. The Clarkston High unit is expected to visit this spring to promote the program to Kennewick High students. But there's already excitement for it among participants in the Young Marines at the school.

"They don't care what branch it is, they just want to have a unit," Cummings said.