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‘Disappointing and unfair’: SF students hope for return of JROTC at 3 east side schools

Amber Tang, a Balboa High School student and JROTC cadet, walks through the hallway at her school on Friday, July 8, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | Constanza Hevia H. for The Standard

Like many students who join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, Amber Tang went from introvert to putting herself out there. Students and proponents attest to the life skills taught in the program, like managing finances and anger while developing leadership skills or spending time volunteering in the community. 

“JROTC really gave me a sense of purpose and really helped me explore who I was,” said Tang, a senior at Balboa High School. “JROTC has given me really good memories in high school, and I can’t imagine my high school career without it.”

But the program may not return to her school this fall.

Even though the Army offered to plug a gap in the program’s budget as far back as this past spring, the district hasn’t strayed from plans to cut funding from JROTC. 

Faced with JROTC’s uncertain future, students and parent supporters have been rallying to save the cherished—and controversial—program at three schools on the city’s east side.

Yet little more than a month ahead of the new school year, the district has still yet to confirm whether it will accept the military’s funding or nix the program altogether. 

Administrators are “exploring the feasibility” of paying an estimated $354,000 in employee benefits that SFUSD didn’t allocate in the 2022-23 school year budget approved last week, district spokesperson Laura Dudnick said. That breaks down to a $121,000 salary and $48,000 in benefits per person.

Meanwhile, school schedules already reflect the cuts—and reversing that is no simple task.

A pamphlet about the JROTC program is attached to a light pole outside the Balboa High School on Friday, July 8, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | Constanza Hevia H. for The Standard
Medals hang from JROTC cadet Amber Tang's uniform on Friday, July 8, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | Constanza Hevia H. for The Standard

“Reinstating JROTC at these schools will require time to recruit staff and enroll students,” Dudnick explained in an email. 

The U.S. Army offered in May to cover full salaries for 13 instructors, including a district director, that would keep the program running at Balboa and Mission high schools and Galileo Academy of Science and Technology. It typically covers half the salaries for instructors, while the San Francisco Unified School District foots the bill for the other half and employee benefits. Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School would not receive Army funding because it ran a naval JROTC program, according to SFUSD Commissioner Ann Hsu.

JROTC has had a rocky reputation in the district because of its association with the U.S. military and past attempts to end the program. Its students were especially worried about the program when SFUSD began bracing itself for cuts last fall. 

Of the seven high schools with JROTC, the program remained budgeted at Lowell, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington high schools—all on the west side of the city—due to higher enrollment.

JROTC students remain hopeful it will come together, especially for those in their senior year, like Tang.

‘Disappointing and Unfair’

While there’s no bad blood toward the schools that are certain to keep the program, it’s not lost on Tang that the east side campuses are most affected. 

“It’s a very clear pattern that the schools in the lower-income areas are getting their programs shut down,” Tang added. “It’s kind of disappointing and unfair, from my perspective, that schools on the west side get to keep their program and we don’t. We worked so hard over the past couple years to keep the spirit alive.”

Lieutenant colonel Doug Bullard, a JROTC instructor, also recognizes the disparity. 

“To me, there’s a real equity issue here,” Bullard said.

While some participants, like Mission High School junior Levi Lum, express an interest in the military and are enrolled in JROTC, students don’t necessarily see it as a recruiting tool. 

Levi Lum, a Mission High School student and JROTC cadet, poses for a portrait at his school on Friday, July 8, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | Constanza Hevia H. for The Standard

“I’m still exploring my options,” Lum said. “It would be unfortunate for all the freshmen coming, for those who have an interest in the program to not be able to take this class because it has a lot to offer. It’s a class of things that aren’t easy to find anywhere.”

Lowell High School senior Josue Cruz, a JROTC student since his freshman year, said he has watched at least two close friends go through immense personal growth through the program. Like his friends, he said JROTC has helped him take more responsibility and put himself out there.

“I’m just happy it stayed in Lowell,” Cruz said. “I’m just kind of bummed out the other schools will be missing out. This program, in my opinion, teaches more than the regular classes.”

What Would It Take To Keep JROTC?

Bullard is confident that the money given by the Army will be enough to cover all the expenses and that enrollment will rebound. JROTC is expected to have 100 students to maintain the program. Last semester, the three high schools in limbo each had about 60 to 80 students, according to Bullard. 

Amber Tang, a Balboa High School student and JROTC cadet, poses for a portrait at her school on Friday, July 8, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. “I have learned a lot from this program. The best part of it is the people and if they cut the program a lot of people won’t be able to come together and do what they love. You build friendships and connections and it will be sad to take all of it away.” | Constanza Hevia H. for The Standard

“It’s almost been a crusade of sorts to try to keep the program,” said Bullard, who has worked as a JROTC instructor for 25 years. “We have a solution now. I can’t imagine how the district would not move forward with those programs.”

On Monday, Gen. Paul Funk II, commanding officer of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, will speak to local stakeholders about the future of the program. 

SFUSD Commissioner Ann Hsu said she hopes the district can inform parents and students about its plans shortly before school starts. She noted that the district doesn’t have a history of supporting the JROTC. 

“Recruitment for the military is not the point,” Hsu said. “It’s a matter of moving around the money. That’s where we are right now.”

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