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South Lakes JROTC Survives, for Now

County is '99 percent sure' the program will be back next year.

For members of the South Lakes High School JROTC program, it was a roller coaster of emotions last week. Cadets traded rumors about the apparent cancellation of the program. The director dusted off his resume. Concerned parents worried aloud about the seemingly imminent demise of their children's favorite program. And the principal scrambled to save one of her school's signature groups.

On Tuesday, April 22, it appeared the JROTC program would unceremoniously end once school came to a close in June, but by Friday, cadets rejoiced at a last-second reprieve.

Like a last minute death row pardon, news that the program would be saved reached the desk of a very "relieved" Sgt. Major Weldon Thompson, the director of the South Lakes JROTC program on Friday. "I don't know where the decision came but I know we are all satisfied with the decision and we can concentrate on the important things at hand," Thompson said on Friday. "All I know is that everything is back on track and we can put this episode behind us."

On Tuesday, April 29, Marty Abbott, the Fairfax County Public School acting assistant superintendent for public instruction, said the school and the county are still hammering out details to keep the program at South Lakes. Abbott said she was "99 percent sure" that the South Lakes' JROTC program would live to see another year.

THE DRAMA STARTED on Wednesday, April 23, when Thompson informed his top cadets during their staff meeting that the program, which he started in 1995, would cease to exist as of the last day of school. The cadets, he said, were "stunned, surprised and overwhelmed."

One day earlier, Thompson had met with principal Rely Rodriguez and was told the news that the program would have to be disbanded because of what he described as a combination of money, manpower and budgetary considerations.

"For a lot of these kids, this is a huge part of their lives," the director said. "This is more than just an educational experience."

Senior Bryan Otis, a battalion commander, in the program said he was "devastated" when he heard the news. His girlfriend, and fellow cadet, junior Vanessa Vila, was equally concerned about the thought of not having a program during her senior year. "We are really freaking out here and we don't know what to do," she said. "I just can't believe they are trying to shut us down."

With 40 days of school left, Thompson was preparing to update his resume and begin formal preparations for closing the program that has dominated his life for the past eight years.

"It's pretty ironic that I could close down the same program I opened up," Thompson said. "Not too many people can say that."

BEFORE THE MEETING between Rodriguez and Thompson, the principal insisted that she did not want to pull the plug on JROTC. "The first thing we told him was that we love the program," Rodriguez said. "It's good for the kids, it's good for the community and its good for the country. We teach them a lot of leadership and technology skills, it is leadership based. We really have some great kids in this program and I would hate for it to close down."

After his meeting with the principal, Thompson met with his students. "I had to let them know what was going on, that is part of leadership," Thompson said. "If anything, this is a learning experience and a life lesson for them."

On Wednesday, the sting of the news was still strong. "Am I disappointed? Yes. Concerned? Definitely. Angry? No," Thompson said. "I have to maintain my professionalism. I am a role model for these kids."

Later that same day, Rodriguez indicated that the program would survive. At the end of an interview in her office, Rodriguez said she wanted to find a solution to the impasse. "We have to have a JROTC program next year, we just have to look for other places for the staffing," she said.

According to Army regulations, JROTC programs must have a minimum of 100 cadets. The South Lakes program currently has 86 students. According to Army guidelines, JROTC programs must have at least two instructors. South Lakes lost their second instructor when Lisa Mullins left the school during the first week of classes last September. Since then, Thompson has supervised the program along with a permanent substitute teacher.

To increase the numbers, Thompson will take his recruiting skills, honed in the local middle schools, to nearby JROTC-less high schools. The idea to increase JROTC-generated pupil placement was hatched by Rodriguez as she drove home from work on Thursday night.

"And it is not like Sgt. Major has been sleeping. He has been going to the middle schools to recruit," Rodriguez said. "My ideas was that maybe some of those 9th or 10th graders are interested in working on their leadership skills and going into the Army.

IF THE PROGRAM had been disbanded, it would not have come back in the future, Thompson said. The retired Sgt. Major said that there is a waiting list "a mile long" for schools that would like to add JROTC programs to their curriculum. There are currently over 1,600 Army JROTC programs, Thompson said. "If this program goes away, it goes away, forever."

On Wednesday, Thompson said the decision was still out of his hands, but he was "ready to take my marching orders."

"Each teacher in this building has at least 150 kids. If you look at JROTC with two teachers and 80-some students, that is 40 some kids per teacher and that is not equitable," Rodriguez said, on Wednesday. "But we are required by the Army to instruct. We have to have 100 students to stay here."

The principal said she had spoken with her fellow principals at McLean, Langley and Madison to see if Sgt. Major Thompson can go there to recruit 9th and 10th grade students. "Rest assured, I am working my darndest to keep the program. I am working my buns off to recruit more students to the JROTC program," Rodriquez said. "I love the program. Our student population is down and that means less staffing, but we need two teachers."

Vila said she understood that the school, because of county-generated formulas that calculate teacher-pupil ratios, would have to let go of one teacher. "ROTC is not like regular classes, you can't just get rid of a teacher because the Army won't allow it," Vila said, on Wednesday. "We had interviews scheduled for earlier this week and they were called off at the last minute."

One week later, Vila said it is business as usual. "We are so relieved," she said.