Baltimore Students Join JROTC to Improve Lives

Some students trying to improve their lives at Northwestern High School in Baltimore are turning to the military. They're joining the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, to learn discipline and hard work at a school that struggles with high absenteeism and low test scores.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today, another in our series of reports on Northwestern High School in Baltimore. The staff at this school is struggling to boost achievement. They face chronic attendance and behavior problems, and some students who want to turn their lives around are looking at the military.

Unidentified Man #1: Right hand out.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Unidentified Man #1: Right face.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

MONTAGNE: These are members of the school's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

NPR's Larry Abramson recently visited with the cadets.

LARRY ABRAMSON: At 8:00 am, the halls of Northwestern High are empty, but the basement is busy, full of young men and women getting what you might call a dressing down. Nadgee Corbett(ph), a senior in his fourth year of junior ROTC, stares straight into the eyes of one freshman who seems to be drowning in his Air Force jacket.

Mr. NADGEE CORBETT: Is your jacket too big for you?

Unidentified man #2: Slightly. Yes, slightly.

Mr. CORBETT: Yeah. I'll see about that.

ABRAMSON: He even suggests one young man might try some dandruff shampoo to improve the polish of his uniform, then he lets them go to class.

Mr. CORBETT: (Unintelligible), arms, class dismiss.

Unidentified Group: Thank you, sir.

ABRAMSON: Corbett recently enlisted in the Marine Reserves, much to the consternation of the commanding officer of this Air Force unit. Corbett says he joined ROTC as a freshman to help him get his act together.

Mr. CORBETT: I was kind of indecisive and a big procrastinator. And with, like, the opportunities to take, you know, leadership roles is like, well, I have somebody else's welfare in mind, not just my own, so I have to look out for other people.

ABRAMSON: Kids at Northwestern frequently disrupt instruction. Attendance hovers around 80 percent. The freshman class is especially notorious for abusing their newfound freedom at this large, underperforming high school. Their teacher, Sergeant Alfred Johnson(ph), says he sees himself as supporting the school.

Sergeant ALFRED JOHNSON (Teacher, Northwestern High School): I try to offer them direction. And if they need help, I'll help them out. They want to go in the military, I'm sure I know recruiters, I can give them recruiters' names. What makes me proud is if I look at them and I say, have you become a better student today than what you were yesterday?

Mr. Robinson, what's your excuse?

Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible).

Sgt. JOHNSON: It's dirty.

ABRAMSON: When class starts, Sergeant Johnson faces the same challenges as every other teacher here. Student heads begin to droop, coming to rest on their desks. It's uniform day but several kids are still wearing street clothes.

Sgt. JOHNSON: You get an F for the day.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible).

Sgt. JOHNSON: Yeah. Uniform is a requirement.

ABRAMSON: Johnson presses on. He tries to organize kids into groups so they can liven up the walls of this dinghy basement classroom. The effort becomes mired in a dispute over who will be in charge. One girl tries to claim the top spot by using her formidable vocal powers.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible).

ABRAMSON: Sgt. Johnson maintained his ramrod-straight bearing through it all, and keeps a grin on his face. As long as they're arguing about what they're supposed to be arguing about, he says he doesn't mind.

Sgt. JOHNSON: Hand salute.

Unidentified Group: One, two.

Sgt. JOHNSON: Louder. Hand salute.

Unidentified Group: One, two.

ABRAMSON: Attitudes change when the cadets moved to the cafeteria to do drills.

Sgt. JOHNSON: Parade rest.

ABRAMSON: The kids fall in. As Sergeant Johnson barks commands, they seem to focus. The class finally has something to do with the energy they have to contain in all their other class.

Sgt. JOHNSON: ...come here.

Unidentified Man #5: Yes, sir.

Sgt. JOHNSON: I know, come on.

Unidentified Man #5: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible)

ABRAMSON: One cadet leads the group in a chant while the others march in place. For some of these students, this may be an important moment in their day, a moment when they're all working together as a group and doing as they're told.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.