By Amanda Martinez
Inside a quiet Mission High School classroom on Tuesday morning, First Sergeant Ray Smith prepared for what he hoped would be the final battle of a three year war between his program, the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) and the Board of Education.
And Tuesday night, in a room packed with young JROTC advocates who filled the chairs, sat on the floor and stood in the aisles, the Board of Education voted 4 to 3 to reinstate the program that was to end this year. The fate of the program has been in limbo since the Board of Education voted in November of 2006 to phase out JROTC in the district based on the argument that military courses should not be allowed in San Francisco schools.
Earlier in the day, Smith said that in the five years he had been at Mission High, none of his students had gone into the army. “I preach college over military,” he said in a message echoed by the swarm of teenagers—maybe 200—who gathered outside the Board of Education by 5 p.m. on Tuesday holding signs reading, Choice for Students, JROTC Introduced me to College and R.O.T.C. Teaches Democracy.
At 6 p.m. students quickly filled all the available seats in the Board of Education’s meeting room at 555 Frankin St. Once those were filled, they sat on the floor, stood in the aisles or politely watched the meeting on a monitor outside the conference room. One young man standing along the wall, opted for a broader message on his tee-shirt: MOVIES, ruining books since 1920.
Mayank Patel, a junior from Mission High who arrived an hour early said he was there with six students. Patel, tall and big boned, tried to explain how JROTC had turned him from a shy freshman into an outgoing junior. “In a way, they kind of make fun of people,” he said. “Like saying what’s up tall guy.”
“I was really shy and now I’m not afraid to talk to people like you,” Patel said.
Opponents to the program including some of the board members, Smith said earlier in the day, have been guided by ideology rather than education. “If people come to our class they will see that it is actually a civics class where the focus is for students to learn life skills, goal setting, and college preparation,” he said and described the Mission’s program as academic unlike other JROTC programs in the state.
To stay optimistic in the final hours of uncertainty Smith decided to tape pictures up across his office, showcasing some of the schools JROTC activities including, community trash cleaning up, trips to the opera, dress for success days, and team building exercises.
All of his plans, however, have been scaled down since students and teachers efforts have been diverted by efforts to save the program. “We haven’t had much time to ourselves,” said JROTC student Carlina Kon, “We used to do hiking, exercising, and other good stuff that there is not enough time for because we are busy making posters to save our program.”
Today class time, which might normally be used to do calisthenics or discuss current events were instead being used to prepare speeches that were given before the board made their the final decision on eliminating the now 93- year- old program from seven San Francisco schools. While Sgt. Smith made last minute edits on the speeches Kon and others pulled out their arsenal of already made posters and buttons. Others paced around or distract themselves with their iphones so not to get in the way.
Student Anthony Lee sat worried, “ If we can’t save the program Ill be sad for the underclassmen who will miss an opportunity to do something for the community.
Smith was less concerned, “I am 99 percent sure that we will prevail,” he said pushing aside the chronicle newspaper headline that reads JROTC expected to win reprieve in S.F. vote.
As SF Weekly reported in April, JROTC programs throughout the city have been slowly disintegrating mostly impart to the fact that the programs physical education credit option was abolished last year. California State law requires high school students to take two years of physical education. And on Tuesday night, the board declined to reinstate JROTC as a substitute class for physical education.