Christian Brothers Academy is making its Army Junior ROTC program optional beginning next fall — a change school officials hope will attract more students and critics say flies in the face of a century-long tradition.
The change comes as the school, founded in 1859, looks to increase enrollment. That now stands at 375 students, down from 530 about eight years ago. The school enrolls boys in grades 6-12.
CBA Principal James Schlegel blamed enrollment drops in part on declines in the economy, which make it difficult for parents to afford private school tuition. Annual tuition is $11,200 at the high school and $8,500 at the junior high.
“There are a lot of people who come here that want to participate in band and take advantage of our academic programs but Junior ROTC isn’t for them,” Schlegel said.
About 60 schools in New York state participate in Junior ROTC programs affiliated with the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps or Navy. Schlegel said the programs focus on leadership and citizenship, as well as life skills such as first aid and personal finance.
CBA has a retired officer and three retired sergeants on staff. The Army pays half their salaries and provides uniforms for the students.
While the program instills military-style discipline, actual military training is minimal. Students do not shoot rifles as part of the curriculum. That had been a component of the program in the past, but it has been removed, according to Schlegel. The school does have an extracurricular air-rifle team, however.
CBA is considered a Junior ROTC honor unit with distinction, and students have opportunities to get into military institutions such as the U.S Military Academy in West Point or the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. About 20 CBA graduates are now enrolled in military service academies.
CBA researched a number of Army Junior ROTC programs at similar schools before deciding to make the program optional. “They’re mandatory in less than 1 percent. It’s designed to be a program that’s optional in schools,” Schlegel said.
The research found that schools that made the change saw their ROTC program get stronger.
The Junior ROTC program will continue to be part of CBA’s public image, especially at parades or ceremonies outside of school. And Schlegel expects some CBA graduates to continue to go on to service academies.
Mark Lusted of Niskayuna, the father of a 2008 graduate currently attending West Point, said he believes that CBA is turning its back on its heritage.
“Once you make it optional, you’re on a slippery slope — or spiral of death, if you will — to have it gone almost entirely.”
If the program is optional, Lusted said, some boys are going to resist joining. Then, if parents want to try to have their boys participate, they will get the argument, “If the other kids don’t have to do it, why do I have to do it?”
Lusted said he believes the program teaches leadership skills, instills values and offers students a sense of dedication. And while there are many schools that offer extracurricular activities and athletics, he said, there are very few schools that offer the structure of a military component.
“I think a lot of parents are sending their kids to CBA exactly for that,” he said. “Our son went from essentially hating school to actually being a top-notch performer.”
Nina Mucha of Queensbury, the mother of a 2010 graduate, said CBA instills good morals and discipline. “I sent him to that school to have the structure, the character and, more importantly, all of this was woven with the tenets of the Catholic faith,” she said.
She believes CBA’s problem is simply money and that school officials are looking for a strategy to improve the bottom line.
“They just created this swirl of ideas that I don’t think has anything to do with what the problem is at all. It’s very disappointing to see the lack of true honesty,” she said.
Mucha said making the military component optional would limit students’ ability to be accepted into military academies.
“I feel that there’s been a death. It’s a death of a tradition, a fine tradition that should have been celebrated, and it wasn’t.”
She also believes the school’s academic standards have declined and perhaps the proposed merger between LaSalle Institute in Troy and CBA that was shot down in 2009 should have been more thoroughly explored.
LaSalle, another Catholic school for boys, also has a military program affiliated with the Army, but theirs will remain mandatory. The two private Capital Region schools are among 23 in the nation with either voluntary or mandatory Army Junior ROTC programs.
Voluntary Junior ROTC programs exist elsewhere at the Capital Region — notably at Schenectady High School. Its Air Force Junior ROTC program is in its sixth year and grown to 140 students from 32 in its first year.
Students are attracted to the community service aspect, including working to improve Vale Cemetery, helping seniors at the Glendale Nursing Home and serving meals at local homeless shelters, according to Chief Master Sgt. Jayne Thompson.
Thompson said students get a strong sense of identity and self-discipline and feel they are contributing to the school. They also get leadership experience because they are able to help run the program and supervise the other cadets if they get good grades.
“It’s one of the few programs in the school that allows kids to exercise leadership,” said Peter Parisi, principal for the high school’s GE Scholars School of Humanities and Culture house.
The formal program covers aerospace science, the history of the Air Force, character and team building, military drills and survival skills, according to Parisi.
Schenectady is one of 17 Air Force-affiliated Junior ROTC programs in the state and the only one in the Capital Region. The Greater Amsterdam School District is one of seven high schools in the state affiliated with the Marine Corps Junior ROTC program. Seventeen schools are affiliated with the Navy Junior ROTC, but none are in the Capital Region.