RADCLIFF, Ky. (Army News Service, March 11, 2011) -- Bicari Truitt laughs about it now. But the self-proclaimed former class clown realizes his disruptive humor was no joke.

The funny-man persona hurt him educationally and socially. It landed him in trouble with teachers and school administrators, and no one, including his classmates, took him seriously.

He unintentionally had become what he was good at telling: a joke.

Nowadays, in a Junior Leadership Corps classroom at North Middle School, Truitt still occasionally grabs the spotlight. Only now it's as a class leader, reporting daily attendance and pushing fellow students to stay on top of assignments.

Truitt, an eighth-grader, gets his stand-up these days at the whiteboard, providing input for the daily discussion.

"If I wasn't in here, I'd be playing around," he said. "This class gets you thinking about things. It's easy to get in trouble, but hard to get out of."

Truitt, like 164 other seventh- and eighth-grade students, volunteered to be among the first Junior Leadership Corps Cadets in the U.S., which is part of a larger initiative called Project PASS - Partnership for All Student Success. Project PASS is taking root at North and James T. Alton middle schools in nearby Vine Grove.

The curriculum and structure of the program are built off that used by Junior ROTC.

The students, many of whose parents are retired or active-duty military members, have their reasons for joining. Some want structure. Some want leadership training. Some want discipline. They all want opportunity.

"This is a chance to surround myself with others who have similar goals," said Andrew Rendon, an eighth-grader at James T. Alton.

JLC's inaugural semester is barely eight weeks old. Already, instructors say they're seeing marked differences in students, in their grades and in their demeanor.

In fact, several teachers have approached Neal Gibbs, the JLC teacher at North, and Randy Pitcher, of James T. Alton, touting the turnaround with some children and applauding the instructors' efforts.

Gibbs and Pitcher, both retired Soldiers, say it's just the beginning.

They admit that they face considerable challenges. Much of it stems from the hurdles of starting a program from scratch, such as lining up uniforms, learning the curriculum, prepping lesson plans and setting up their classrooms. But they've also worked to dispel misconceptions that the JLC is a military recruiting tool and to sell prospective students on the value of being part of an atypical class.

Perhaps their greatest hurdle is trying to shape a diverse mix of students. Among them are students who stand out academically, athletically and socially and are looking for tutelage to hone their skills even more. There are average students who need reinforcement. Then there are students with disruptive pasts who are considered the JLC's primary targets.

The combination demands flexibility from Gibbs and Pitcher, to be part teachers, part counselors, but constant motivators.

"If I can help one kid, I think I did my job," Gibbs said. "I'm trying to help as many as I can. It's tough, because it's easy for kids to get off the right road."

JLC is unlike other classes. There is no textbook -- at least not yet. For now, lessons are conducted through handouts, slides, interactive remote-learning modules and discussions.

And that's just how the instructors like it. Though they have a structured curriculum, the absence of a textbook is one less potential turnoff to a student. They use what's available to engage their pupils, enlisting ingenuity and savvy to make lessons relevant to the students.

The classes involve considerable dialogue and little lecturing.

In teaching about leadership recently, Gibbs highlighted the value of recognizing and capitalizing on diversity. He held up different objects and asked students to point out similarities and differences between the two. Even when those traits were not so obvious, Gibbs encouraged the class to think and go beyond the superficial.

"The material is easier to pitch in that fashion," Pitcher said.

Thus far, instruction has focused on topics including leadership, note-taking and goal-setting. Teachings also are peppered with the instructors' experiences and life lessons.

The JLC isn't only about enhancing book smarts. The program aims to push students to focus more on their futures. It's at this stage of their lives, PASS organizers say, that students veer a certain direction. Some take the path toward high school success, pursuit of a college degree and a career. Others, who are no fans of school, are beginning to consider dropping out.

Or worse.

As recently as December, Amanda Hutchingson found it a chore getting her daughter to attend school regularly. She would complain of being ill, or devise some reason why she couldn't be in class.

Hutchingson said her daughter, a seventh-grader at North, lacked direction. She was depressed, and Hutchingson, fearing what her daughter's mental state might lead to, enrolled her in counseling.

So when word spread of the JLC program starting in January, counselors recommended that Hutchingson's daughter enroll. Almost from the outset, her daughter has responded positively.

She has connected with her classmates, has joined the drill team and wants to learn. In just this past nine weeks, her report card improved from one filled with Cs and Ds, to As and Bs, and recognition on the honor roll.

"It used to be hard to talk to her. She would draw in," Hutchingson said. "Now you can't get her to shut up. It's all about the JLC."

Without the JLC program, Hutchingson figures her daughter might have faced one of two realities: drugs or suicide.

"It's changed her life," Hutchingson said. "I don't see that little girl anymore. This program has turned her around and given her something to look forward to."

Katie Mineo looks forward to somebody running her own shop selling Japanese animation known as anime. What the James T. Alton eighth-grader doesn't know is how to go about organizing the effort to start a business and lead her dream to fruition.

That's why she signed up and plans to continue on in the Junior ROTC program at North Hardin High School.

"I felt this would be a good start," Mineo said. "I think a lot of people who say it's a lame class would enjoy it if they actually paid attention."

Part of the vision of the Junior Leadership Corps is to keep students involved inside and outside the classroom. North and James T. Alton have created drill teams and later in the semester students will take part in various community projects.

Gibbs and Pitcher, with their backgrounds and proven leadership skills, see themselves as natural fits for their positions. They love being in the classroom. They love teaching. Most of all, they love kids.

Their intent is to position their students to set lifelong goals and to work diligently to achieve them. To the instructors, whether a student chooses to one day serve in the military as they did or pursue a career in another field is irrelevant.

They simply want a bright future for America.

"Life is about consequences," Pitcher said. "It's not about games and horse-play. If you can't apply what we're teaching now, you're going to struggle in whatever you do. This is a foundation time now to learn these things so you can be successful later in life."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16