Students Spreading their Wings

Students Spreading their Wings

Air Force Jr. ROTC Soars at Chantilly High School

The Chantilly Academy is offering the first Air Force Junior ROTC program in Fairfax County and, when selecting its teachers, the school went with the professionals.

Major Sheila Allen and Tech. Sgt. John Wilks are each retired, 20-year-veterans of the Air Force. When they learned of Chantilly's new program, they both applied for it and got it.

"I am ecstatic — I love this job," said Wilks. "We both love young people. We're committed to education and encourage them to go to college, but we give them the entire spectrum. And we decided this is where we belong because of Mr. [Academy Administrator John] Wittmann's leadership and heart for this."

"I'm very excited about the program," added Allen. "You get to impact these young people — 11th- and 12th-graders — before they go out into the word. They learn life skills they'll use, whether in civilian or military life — such as time management, how to work with groups and planning skills — and that's a joy for me."

Allen mainly teaches aerospace science, and Wilks focuses on leadership and communication skills, drills and ceremonies. Students also learn Air Force history, financial management, resume writing and how to interview for a job. "The purpose of the program is to make better citizens," said Wilks.

At the end of the course, students receive certificates of training. Those entering the Air Force after high school receive two enlisted stripes, qualifying for E-3, instead of E-1 pay — a $300/month difference. If they go to college first, they could possibly get ROTC scholarships and would become officers. They may choose any branch of service they want.

"If you enlist, the Air Force will pay 75 percent of your college tuition while you're in the Air Force," said Wilks. "Plus, you learn a profession, such as cost analyst, paramedic, lab technician, systems analyst, electrician." Whether officer or enlisted, it's a four-year commitment.

The class meets every other day for a half credit; next school year, it'll meet every day for two credits and will increase from half a year to all year. "I taught this at Gwynn Park High in Brandywine, Md., for 7 1/2 years," said Allen. "Students would come back and tell me how the class or experience they had is now helping them."

They also talked to classes about how Junior ROTC aided them in transitioning from high school to adulthood. Said Allen: "I have students now at various colleges and universities, at West Point and at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs."

Sophomore Rebecca Williams, 16, came to The Chantilly Academy from Germany where her father was stationed in the Army. "I took this for two years there," she said. "It's fun to help get a new program established here and mold it to fit the students." For example, she and the squadron commander created a student handbook together.

Rebecca plans to continue ROTC in college, get an officer's commission and become a lawyer. She said the Academy's program gave her the "background, military history, procedures and drill, and it'll give me a heads-up on the other students when I get to college." Planning on a military career, she said, "I've grown up in military communities and I really like that."

Junior Matt Hubbard, 16, was also previously involved in ROTC, in Okinawa, Japan, where his mom worked for the U.S. government. "They asked me to help start this program, and I wanted to put some of my prior leadership skills into [it]," he explained. "This is its foundation year, so it's really important — these kids are going to be its leaders in the years to come."

He's planning to attend college and noted that students taking this class don't have to go into the military for a career. And he said it's not necessarily a military-training course: "It's a good program for anybody because it builds good citizens."

Senior Shannon Halsey, 18, became interested in ROTC because her boyfriend is in Marine boot camp and her cousin is in Osbourn High's ROTC program in Manassas. At the Academy, she said, "We have fun, and we all became friends really quickly. You learn how the Air Force was started, and you learn drills and discipline."

Halsey hopes the class will help her decide if a military career is for her. "Sometimes, people go into [it] and have no clue what's going to happen," she said. "If this is in high school, they have the chance to learn."

Senior Antonio Arroliga, 18, considers the class an adventure or journey. "You learn how to be responsible and a better person," he said. "I always wanted to be in the military — my main goal is the Special Forces — and I hope to go into the Marines or Army."

In class, he said, "As soon as we come in, we stand at attention when the commanders ask us to." Besides the snappy uniforms, said Arroliga, he likes the respect everyone gives to each other: "It's like a little military school."

At the Academy, he learned the history of flight and how to salute and drill. "If you have a whole lot of people doing the same thing at the same time, it looks really beautiful," he said. He'd also recommend Junior ROTC to his friends.

"It'll teach you responsibility and discipline — you won't get anywhere in life without them," said Arroliga. "And the instructors are great; they teach us step by step so everyone understands and we're all at the same level."

Allen and Wilks also appreciate their students. "These young people are very excited about being in the program," said Allen. "They're cooperative and are willing and ready to explore all we have to offer them about the basics of flight and the customs and courtesies of the military."

Both she and Wilks are also pleased to teach a class of 26 students, after their previous assignments. Allen taught 224 students, and Wilks — teaching 7 1/2 years at Northwest Halifax High in Littleton, N.C. — taught 120. At The Chantilly Academy, the instruction can be more personalized.

"We've gotten support from the administrators, teachers and students,' said Allen — "and encouragement from parents," added Wilks. The instructors also included some special activities for their students — a military ball at Andrews Air Force Base and a trip to Daytona Beach, May 3-5, for the International High School Drill Competition.

"They could see the standard they have to meet," said Wilks, who's delighted with all his students: "The kids that are here want to be here, so we know we're getting kids who are excited about the program."