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S .F. Students Earn Their Stripes

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When the San Francisco school board voted last month to restore the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program, it seemed that sanity had prevailed -- three years after the board voted to kill the popular program. Finally, the board had put students' welfare ahead of its ruthless political correctness.

Wrong. Unless the school board votes to recognize that JROTC fulfills students' high school physical education requirements at Tuesday's board meeting, the board's vote to keep JROTC could be viewed as a conniving stunt and a cruel hoax.

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If students cannot get PE credit -- as they could before the board yanked it in 2007, as a follow-up to its 2006 vote to phase out the program -- many students will not be able to fit it into their schedules. Enrollment in "RO" -- as the kids call the program -- will continue to drop. It has fallen from 1,600 students in 2006 to 500 students this year. Folks outside the Bay Area no doubt look at this story and see proof that San Francisco is America's premier military-bashing city. For good reason, too: When they pushed the measure, former school board members Dan Kelly and Mark Sanchez wrote against "the prominent presence of uniformed cadet units" and a curriculum that relies "upon memorization and rote repetition rather than critical thinking." To them, it seems, JROTC was gym for dummies.

While other city's leaders recognize the immense sacrifices made by U.S. troops, the Special City's pols fixate on the military's "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy.

Stereotypes aside, however, the real story here is about San Franciscans' underdog fight to save JROTC from an authoritarian school board.

After the board voted to phase out RO, outraged parents, instructors and students mobilized. They showed up at meeting after meeting to try to shame the school board into allowing students to make their own choices. Board members who terminated the program either lost re-election or won higher office. The new board just wanted the issue to go away, but JROTC boosters wouldn't roll over and die.

They hit back against the RO foes' bogus arguments. Gay RO students came forward to debunk claims that the program discriminated against homosexual students. Parents pointed out that RO students were more likely to grow up to be college students than future military recruits. Opponents charged that RO was a white man's pursuit; Lincoln High School JROTC instructor Robert Powell appeared at meetings to show that eight instructors of SFUSD's 12 JROTC are black -- no offense to white instructors intended.

They lobbied City Hall. They drew state lawmakers into their camp. When the board still refused to give the public the RO option, supporters spent their weekends gathering the thousands of signatures needed to put an advisory measure supporting JROTC on the San Francisco ballot. They succeeded. Last year, that measure passed with 53.5 percent of the vote.

"It is like John Stuart Mill wrote a hundred years ago. The challenge of ideas often leads to the strengthening in institutions," JROTC supporter Michael Bernick, an attorney who headed the Employment Development Department under Gov. Gray Davis, told me. Not that Bernick would want to go through this fight again, but "the fact that the teachers, the students, the parents, the community, all had to come together to save it has made it a stronger and probably a better program."

The board responded. New member Rachel Norton supported JROTC. The RO students' message always did resonate with member Jill Wynns, who argued in 2006 that the board should not take out its disapproval of "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" on Ess Eff students. On May 12, two other board members joined Norton and Wynns to restore the program.

JROTC supporters had won -- until later that night when the board voted to send pink slips to all the instructors -- although the board can reinstate the jobs later. As RO supporter Christopher L. Bowman put it, "Effectively what they did was on May 12, they voted to reinstate the program, then later they voted to eliminate the program's staff by eliminating every one."

Then there's the unresolved PE-credit issue. (Hope you like acronyms, because this is about the SFUSD JROTC PE ploy.) Tuesday, the board will vote on a measure to allow RO students to get their gym credits through independent study -- but that's onerous and unnecessary. The California Board of Education said local districts have the authority to offer PE credits for JROTC.

I urge readers to watch the video archive of the May 12 school board meeting on On the anti-side, you'll see some students, but mostly a bunch of aged hippies, who think we're still in Vietnam, railing against military atrocities. On the RO side, you'll see some parents and educators, but mostly kids, who aren't talking about themselves but something larger than themselves.

Students who are on the academic sweet track and those whose kids who are not yet there marvel at a program that taught them how to present themselves, ways to help others (first aid) -- and how to become leaders. They are confident young adults.

Unless the board quickly makes up for its folly, there will be fewer such students graduating San Francisco schools.

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