Sixteen-year-old Lyndsay Gates admits she was "a bit of a punk" before she enrolled in West High School's Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program.
"I thought I was on top of the world," she said, describing her cocky outlook on school and life. Two years later, she said she is a different person.
"In so many way it has changed my outlook on life and what people think of me," Gates wrote about her experience in the program. "I look at how I was in my freshman year and I was not the citizen that I am now. I am a model citizen, I do community service and have very good grades."
But looming budget cuts may kill the program at West and elsewhere. In February 2011, the Navy announced it would close 48 NJROTC units across the country including the program at West High because of low student enrollment and Department of Defense budget cuts. However, the Navy has unveiled an alternative program, the Navy National Defense Cadet Corps. It offers the same curriculum as the NJROTC with one big difference: The Navy doesn't fund it, leaving local school districts to foot a larger portion of the bill.
And in this economic climate, that's a tough sell.
Established in 1964, the NJROTC curriculum teaches students about naval operations, seamanship, navigation, meteorology and other topics, according to its website at www. http://www.njrotc.navy.mil. Along with classes, students in the program participate in community service; academic, athletic, drill and orienteering competitions; field meets, flights, visits to naval or other activities; marksmanship sports training; and physical fitness training.
West High, which had been on probation with the Navy because of low enrollment, has joined the chorus of other schools across the country upset to see its program on the chopping block. The school had finally bolstered enrollment during the last school year, drawing 106 students. It's the first time in six years that West High exceeded the minimum enrollment number mandated by the Navy.
But subsidizing the Navy's program further doesn't seem likely. Next year, the district will receive approximately $700,000 more than last because the legislature increased Utah's K-12 education budget by 1.3 percent. But rising retirement costs and other expenses means the district has a $1.7 million deficit for the 2012-13 school year, in addition to losing about $350,000 in at-risk student funds, said district spokesman Jason Olsen.
The district's 2012-13 general budget appropriates about $7,437 per student, with nearly 70 percent of that amount going to instructional services for regular programs. On Tuesday night, the board tentatively approved that budget, but without any more funding for the NJROTC.
Lanny Johnston, senior naval science instructor at West High, said the NJROTC fills a critical need for students.
Johnston participated in an Air Force JROTC program while attending Clearfield High School, which helped him earn a college ROTC scholarship to the University of Utah. He chose to pursue a career in the military instead, but keeps in touch with classmates who used the program as a stepping stone to college. He started at West High last year after a 20-year career as a Naval Officer and aviator.
"The goals of this unique program are to instill in students the values of citizenship, community service, personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment. It also helps develop self discipline, teamwork and leadership," said Johnston in remarks to the school board.
"NJROTC provides incentives for students to live healthy, drug-free lives and is a possible alternative to gang activity. The Defense Cadet Corps program has the same goals and structure."
Johnston cited a number of achievements by the NJROTC students during the last school year, including a fundraiser that brought in $3,000, which was spent on buying Christmas wreaths for more than 300 veteran graves during the holidays.
He implored board members to commit to spending more on the program, which has been on West High's campus since 1993.
"They might as well just cancel the whole program because they're killing it slowly," he said. "One instructor will not be able to grow the program. The successes we have had will evaporate."
Salt Lake City School District facts
The Salt Lake City School Board on Tuesday discussed the district's 2012-13 annual budget. Utah law requires school boards to approve a balanced budget in June. To view the budget in its entirety, visit http://www.sltrib.com. Some facts from the budget:
59.39 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
More than 85 languages are spoken by students in the district.
Nearly 4.39 percent of students are considered homeless.
The district anticipates an enrollment increase of 236 students for the coming school year, bringing the average daily student population to 23,820.