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Behind the miracle

JROTC at Cherry Hill West receives one more year to reach its enrollment goal

Emily Liu/The Sun
Cherry Hill West sophomore Essence Bishop (left to right), senior Noah Casa and Master Sgt. Terrell Costa stand before the school’s military wall of honor, determined to meet next year’s JROTC enrollment goal of 100 students.

Superintendent Dr. Kwame Morton has decided to reverse the deactivation of the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program at Cherry Hill High School West, after an outcry from cadets, alumni and the community.

Much to the relief of the cadets, JROTC now has another year to reach the goal of enrolling 100 students in the program.

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Just three weeks prior, Master Sgt. Terrell Costa was hired on April 9 as a co-instructor for the program to work alongside current instructor Col. Mario Tommasi. Costa noted that part of JROTC’s enrollment decline happened during COVID, and slowed again when one of the two instructors for the program, Daniel Bouchee, left last June.

When he heard the program was to be deactivated, Costa met with its cadets to see what they wanted to do in response.

“I told them we have two options: We can show them our value; we can go to this meeting and show them what this program means to you, or we do nothing and we close it down,” Costa recalled. “But I don’t quit, so whatever you decide to do, we will do it. And so the cadets unequivocally together were like, ‘No, we’re going to fight.’

“But they needed to see someone was willing to fight for them.

“Saying it with such authority and power, I saw when I addressed them, their beliefs started to change right before my eyes,” he added. It was like, ‘Okay, these are tears of sadness, and now these are tears of strength and endurance.'”

The cadets immediately got together get the word out. At an April 30 board of ed meeting, they stood in solidarity in their Class A uniforms testifying to how the JROTC had made a difference in their lives. Former students of the program and other servicemen also weighed in from across the country, encouraging the board of education not to end it.

Emily Liu/The Sun
Cherry Hill West JROTC students stand in solidarity to push for the continuation of their program at the April 30 board of education meeting. Some of them noted how the program helped them become better people.

There was also the misconception that the board of education was voting on the program during a budget hearing, but Miriam Stern, its president, clarified an hour into the session’s public comments that that was not the case, and that the decision was independent of the board’s budget vote.

The JROTC program consists of aerospace science, leadership education and a wellness program, all geared toward “developing citizens of character dedicated to serving their nation and community.” There is no military obligation to join.

Students cited how they learned discipline, confidence, leadership and organization in the program, which also features physical training days and opportunities for students to be in leadership positions, helping to look after each other. The students work together in teams and have a mindset of “no one gets left behind.”

“It increased my empathy, sophistication, demeanor and social skills, all of which I haven’t learned from any other classes, and all of which have benefitted me,” said JROTC graduate Lt. Col. Luke G. D’Ambra.

Several people at the board meeting testified that they had only come to West for the JROTC; one student gave up the chance to be with his friends and girlfriend at East, and former students described how the program led to better-paying jobs and helped them become better people.

Midway through the public comments and two hours into the board meeting, Morton received assurance that no matter what the JROTC numbers are, the program will still get its enrollment extenson.

Costa and the cadets already have plans to encourage recruitment and are determined to achieve their goals. They will also be giving their classroom a fresh coat of paint over the summer and adding a mural in the halls to inspire the cadets.

“ROTC isn’t to build you for the military, it’s to build you to become a better person,” noted senior Noah Casa, student leader of the JROTC. “No matter what you want to do in life, you will learn core values that will lead you to the right path.”

To learn more about the Air Force JROTC, visit https://www.chclc.org/domain/1327.


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