Unlike most program cuts in schools, the decision to cancel Coventry's AFJROTC program did not stem from a lack of funding within the school district, or even within the state, but from limited funding to the United States Air Force, which financially supports the JROTC units.
Last October, instructors Colonel Steven Buteau and Sergeant Marc Boulay received a letter from the Air Force explaining that CHS's unit, RI-081, had not maintained the minimum enrollment requirement since the 2006-2007 school year, putting it at risk for deactivation. According to Title 10, U.S. Code Section 2031, all AFJROTC programs must have a minimum enrollment of 100 cadets or 10% of the school's population, whichever is less (about 160 cadets for CHS). There are approximately 80 cadets enrolled in Coventry's program currently.
When asked if he knew why the school hadn't received the warning earlier, Col. Buteau pointed out that the Air Force's JROTC enrollment requirements weren't enforced as strictly before the program faced limited funding.
"In times of rich Air Forces and rich governments, the number requirements were never strictly enforced," he said. "So you really could get a false sense of security."
Despite implementing a number of recruitment initiatives over the next year, including the high school and middle school guidance departments' renewed emphasis on the program; embedding the Capstone graduation requirement in the AFJROTC curriculum; establishing an early morning class to keep cadets with scheduling conflicts enrolled; and expanding recruitment to Career & Tech center students from other districts, enrollment still fell short at the start of the current school year.
Col. Buteau explained that a major factor in the unit's difficulty to meet the enrollment requirement was the fact that Coventry High School offers a fairly extensive list of elective classes for students to choose from, allowing those who may have chosen ROTC from a limited selection to register for one of the many music, drama, art or other elective courses offered.
Despite this point, he says the program's first-year cadet enrollment was on a positive trajectory at the start of this school year, which generally results in more cadets who stay involved with the program until they graduate. In addition, Col. Buteau shared that the school had been attempting to initiate the earning of a science credit for selected cadets in JROTC aerospace science courses, as well as gain State approval for the program to be considered a Career & Technical course, to attract cadets from outside districts as the Regional Career Center at CHS currently does.
"What keeps me awake at night is the frustration of knowing that many kids sign up, but what usually happens due to competing requirements, is they have to take an extra English class, or a Capstone class, or something else during that time," Col. Buteau explained. "I get the signup numbers in late June, early July and they're good, but by the time September rolls around, the schedules have been changed and the deal's done."
After several rebuttal attempts by both school and district administrators and JROTC instructors, Coventry Public Schools Superintendent Michael Almeida received a final letter from Air Force JROTC Director Colonel Cameron Gilbert in November 2013, stating his final decision to continue with the deactivation of Coventry's JROTC unit effective June 30, 2014.
"In a time of very limited funding, we must direct essential funding to those units that have met Title 10 requirements," wrote Col. Gilbert. "We do not have the luxury of keeping your unit open an additional year in hopes of it once again reaching viability."
At the conclusion of the year, the school will be required to return all JROTC equipment and supplies, including several computers and printers, as well as all uniforms and textbooks to the Air Force or transfer them to another AFJROTC unit.
Although there are a number of unfunded JROTC programs in schools across the country, the option remains unavailable to CHS as unfunded units still fall under the same criteria as funded ones, requiring a minimum of 100 cadets. This is to ensure adequate participation and a smooth unit-to-unit transition in the event of an unfunded unit gaining funding following a deactivation like the one occurring in Coventry.
Col. Buteau shared the reaction of the cadets last week when he and Principal Michael Hobin had to break the news to them.
"When we announced it, there were about 60 or 70 of the kids sitting in seats, just dwarfed by the auditorium - and you know when you tell a kid that they can't go to the amusement park they've been looking forward to?" he asked. "That face they have, when they know they can't do anything about it? That's the face we saw on all of them. They're very disappointed."
Buteau and Hobin both stressed that the quality of the JROTC program, its cadets or their accomplishments were not factors in the Air Force's decision to close Coventry's unit.
"Each evaluation conducted for our program gave exemplary marks to all aspects except enrollment," Hobin wrote in an email informing parents of the Air Force's decision.
Since its inception, more than 3,000 students have enrolled in the JROTC program at Coventry High School, and provided more than 10,000 hours of community service. The unit's Drill Team, which will be deactivated along with the rest of the program, has repeatedly earned national drill championships, at one point earning seven in 10 years, and has often won the Southern New England Drill Team title, along with several hundred trophies and other awards for unit and national excellence.
Coventry's JROTC program has produced a number of cadets who went on to participate in ROTC during college, as well as many more who enlisted in the military following high school or were commissioned after college to excel as officers in the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. In the last two years alone, the program has graduated two cadets, siblings Katelan and Nathan Stinehour, who were accepted into the prestigious United States Air Force Academy. (Put into perspective, the Academy received approximately 10,000 applications in 2012 and only accepted about 1,000 students.)
"I cannot express enough my thanks to the program for the amazing community service they have provided during my 21 years here," said Principal Hobin. "I cannot begin to express how much I will miss the honor and dignity our AFJROTC unit brings to so many occasions and events."