(FORT KNOX, Ky., April 14, 2014) -- Inner-city areas have a bad rap for everything from violence and drug abuse, to poor education systems and lack of employment opportunities. And whether all of those factors are true in a given area or not, one thing rings true for the youth in most of these areas--they are at risk.
But providing students safe activities, positive instruction and life skills that will see them past the risk points is something that Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) instructors have placed high on their priority list.
Thanks to instructors like retired Lt. Col. John Wargo, senior Army JROTC instructor at Hubbard High School in Chicago, at-risk-teens have a better chance at success because his program teaches youth necessary life-skills, and he holds them accountable for what they learn and what they do.
"At Hubbard High School we have a graduation rate of 96 percent, in comparison to the schools overall rate of 81 percent--we make them work," he explained. "The reason that statistic is important is because young people need to graduate high school to have a better chance at a successful job, and have a good jump on life."
Studies have also shown a direct link between youth joblessness and a boost in crime rates. For example, a study released from the University of Chicago Crime Lab in 2013 showed that youth who participated in a city-sponsored summer program that offered employment opportunities, mentoring and therapy were half as likely to be arrested for violent crimes.
But these same studies show that education improves the employment prospects for young adults. Wargo said he thinks that teaching his Cadets skills that will make them successful in whatever they do after high school is an important element in that formula.
"Through JROTC we can teach them discipline, and hard work, how to make good decisions, get them connected in the community, and teach them other life skills they will need in the job place and in college," he explained.
Wargo added that some places in Chicago are not easy for youth to grow up in, and JROTC provides them with some sense of purpose and guidance. When they graduate, and most of his Cadets will graduate, they leave his program with confidence and honor, knowing what hard work is and what success feels like.
According to retired Maj. Ray Moss, and retired Sgt 1st Class Frank Varner, Army JROTC instructors at Renaissance High School in Detroit, there are 19 high school JROTC programs with approximately 4,000 students in the Detroit public school system. And from the class of 2013, the JROTC program graduated 92.8 percent compared to the Detroit public schools rate of 65.5 percent.
Through JROTC programs like the drill competition teams, they said their Cadets learn skills like hard work and discipline and with the success of their efforts they know what hard work will lead to.
"Drill is important in many ways," Varner explained. "First, it is the key to discipline. We always tell a Cadet: before you can help others control themselves you have to first learn to control yourself. Therefore you have to learn how to acquire self-control in every aspect of your life - when to move and when to speak out loud."
Additionally, Varner said programs like drill develop Cadets into leaders. He said that he counts on his senior Cadets to assist in the training of the lower level Cadets during drill practice especially with the first year students, which help to build the confidence and self-esteem of the leadership.
But rural areas have their issues too.
Retired Army Master Sgt. Haines Rego is an Army JROTC instructor at Waianae High School, Hawaii. The school is located 35 miles from Honolulu and its student population is made up from rural communities.
"I am an alumnus of Waianae High School and I went back so I could help the kids because I came from there and I know how hard it is to get out and into the real world," he explained. "I want to help these kids get a leg up and graduate from high school and get them past the barriers I had when I was younger--this area is a rural, poverty area."
Rego explained that locally, most of the parents have a middle school, maybe up to an 11th grade, education and make a living babysitting or doing menial labor. The parents feel that if it is good enough for them, then it is good enough for their kids.
"There is nothing wrong with the way their parents make a living but we want the kids to know there is more out there and they can make a good living doing other things. Most of the parents only see their kids getting to their level--'I have to babysit all my life, so do you,'" Rego said. "And the kids can't get ahead that way. We try to show them there is more out there and a better way."
To make his point, Rego said the graduation rate at Waianae High School is 67 percent, but within his JROTC program it is 100 percent, a statistic that goes back more than 10 years.
"All our kids have the grades and have the chance to go to college--some of them won't get to because of family situations, but they could all get in," he explained. "The challenge for us is getting scholarship information in the hands of the parents and the kids."
According to a report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics the 2013 unemployment rate for teenage youth is 20.9 percent, three times that of the national average. It is a statistic that has not gotten any better since the 2010 19.6 percent unemployment rate as cited in a 2010 report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.
But Rego said JROTC helps increase the odds of his Cadets graduating high school, finding employment and going to college. Through the program he said the Cadets learn how to speak confidently, apply themselves and to set and reach goals. Also, JROTC helps Cadets integrate into the community, make contacts and learn that working hard can lead to scholarships--all tools for improving their position in life.
"Cadets know how to speak confidently, how to be respectful. All of these things help them get jobs, help them in their studies, and help them be successful in college," he added.
"I use JROTC to show the kids things like, dressing properly in their uniform as an example of how you dress for an interview. I tell them, 'dress for success,'" Rego explained. "Teaching them how to take care of and how to wear the uniform is important to kids that don't know what a suit looks like, and kids that don't have regular shoes and slacks."
Cadet Robert Valazquez from Hubbard High School in Chicago was overweight, under-motivated and in need of friends--all of which he said changed when he joined JROTC.
"I also did very well in my classes. I went from being in special education classes to advanced placement classes, thanks to JROTC," he explained. "I am also on the drill team and my teammates are my brothers. When you know someone for four years, the bond is amazing.
Valazquez recently competed with his drill team in the Army JROTC National Drill Classic held at the Louisville (Ky.) International Convention Center, April 5. The Chicago native said that JROTC gives his team a way to practice their leadership skills and show themselves and everyone else what discipline, hard work and a little effort can do.
"There is nothing quite like the good feeling you get from these competitions and the things that JROTC does for us," he said. "We are from Chicago--the only school here representing Chicago--and that is a great feeling!"