Junior ROTC has been in steady decline since the Vietnam era, and in Utah only a handful of high schools still offer the program. Clearfield, Northridge, Provo and Dixie high schools offer Air Force ROTC, while Independence alternative, Taylorsville, Ben Lomond and Ogden offer Army ROTC. More than 1,000 high school students are enrolled in ROTC statewide.
East High School, which has had one of the longest running ROTC programs in the country, dating back to 1916, is the last school in the Salt Lake City School District to discontinue the program, although the Independence alternative school has taken up that slack.
Retired Air Force Maj. Kit Workman, an ROTC instructor at Clearfield, says the program offers much more than preparation for the military, with a strong dose of technical and job-ready education, and it instills discipline and self-confidence in the students.
ROTC competitions include air rifle teams, drill teams and computer efficiency teams.
Workman said it also has been a landing place for at-risk students who otherwise may not have completed their high school education.
But while ROTC in the traditional public schools is at risk, Utah is poised to open its first ROTC-based charter school at the beginning of the next school year, thanks to legislation passed in the last session.
The school would be an Air Force ROTC institution, with the emphasis not only on military instruction, but on aerospace technology, computer protection technology, air frame and engine repair and other disciplines related to the aerospace industry that will prepare students for the modern job market, said Workman.
Students will wear uniforms and participate in drills and parade marching, along with competitions like air rifle shooting, while also maintaining the basic high school curriculums.
The bill specifically requiring the State Charter School Board to accept applications for a military charter school was co-sponsored by Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.
The charter must still be approved by the Charter School Board and the State School Board, but a board of directors for the school has already been formed, which includes Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield.
The military school board is looking for a campus near Hill Air Force Base, said board member and treasurer Sherrain Reber. She said the board hopes to enroll between 240 and 360 students the first year, with a proposed ultimate enrollment of 1,080.
Workman said he is excited about the curriculum emphasis on aerospace, computer technology and robotics because of the presence of aerospace giants Boeing and ATK in Utah and the possibility of a Boeing expansion in the state.
Stephenson was instrumental in legislation forging the way for charter schools 15 years ago and said he hoped there would be more charters focusing on specific interest areas like technology or other occupation-ready skills.
The legislation creating the inclusion of a military charter school also specifies charters for career and technical education, and whose mission is to enhance learning opportunities for students at risk of academic failure.