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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 29, 2001 - Issue 52


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Jr. ROTC Hailed as Success at Lower Brule High School

by Steve Miller, West River Editor Rapid City Journal - December 20, 2001
credits:Don Polovich/Journal staff
JROTC Color GuardRAPID CITY - Tyler Coleman, 17, exuded a quiet confidence as he helped his color guard prepare for today's drill competition at the Lakota Nation Invitational.

But he hasn't always been this self-assured. Coleman, now a cadet lieutenant colonel in the Lower Brule High School Junior ROTC program, said JROTC helped him build confidence. "I didn't have much confidence when I joined."

Now in his fourth year in Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, Coleman is the highest-ranking cadet at Lower Brule. He plans to join the Army after he graduates next spring.

Coleman is just one of the success stories in JROTC, says Mike Iwen, one of two JROTC instructors at Lower Brule.

But there are others, too.

Iwen and Cody Russell, Lower Brule High School principal, said JROTC has helped reduce the dropout rate and given students post-graduation goals. Of the 53 graduates from the school over the past three years, 11 joined the military.

The JROTC program at Lower Brule, as well as those at Crow Creek and Pine Ridge high schools, is the brainchild of Joe Wallace of Rapid City, a retired Army colonel.

The Lower Brule School District adopted it for the 1994-95 school year and now has about 60 cadets. It is required for freshmen and sophomores at Lower Brule.

The program began at Crow Creek two years ago and is just getting started this year at Pine Ridge. Wallace hopes to get JROTC programs going next at Cheyenne River and Flandreau.

Wallace said he began thinking about starting JROTC at reservation schools as a way to help American Indian students get out of what he calls the "victim mentality" and to open the door to opportunities for them.

Iwen, a retired Army major, came on board at Lower Brule in 1995-96.

"My first year, I started out with 26 freshmen, but at the end of the school year, I had nine," Iwen said. The rest had dropped out of school. "Since then, our numbers have turned around."

Russell said the program, along with the district's alternative school, has helped lower the dropout rate to 5 percent or less. Of the 88 students in the high school, Russell said he could remember only three students who dropped out last year.

Russell said JROTC has helped virtually eliminate gangs from the school.

"I have several students now who have been in trouble, have been sent away and are doing extremely well now," Iwen said. "One of the reasons they're doing well is they're in JROTC," he said.

Russell recalled one particularly "mean" kid, who would fight at the drop of a hat. "He was ready to drop out. "The major made him a squad leader. ... He made almost a 100 percent turnaround. All of a sudden, he was a leader. He didn't mouth off. He gained some respect. He graduated."

Iwen said JROTC participation falls off in the junior and senior grades because students must take an increasing number of classes required for graduation. JROTC is an elective. Even so, 19 percent of the Lower Brule graduates in recent years have completed four years of JROTC, and 34 percent completed three years.

Russell said the warrior tradition among Indian people values the military experience.

The students like the uniforms and the recognition they get from serving as color guards at sporting events such as the Lakota Nation Invitational, Iwen said. JROTC units are performing at each opening ceremony and for grand entries at the invitational.

Mostly, Iwen and Wallace say, the program provides an "ordered environment" to kids who crave it.

Russell agrees. He said the discipline installed by the JROTC program has "tremendously decreased" classroom-discipline problems. "We Indians are supposed to really respect our elders. We kind of lost some of that," Russell, a Lower Brule tribal member, said. "The (JROTC) program is bringing that back."

He said that in the past, students would call the faculty by their last names only. They'd refer to him, for example, as "Russell." Since JROTC began, they now are more likely to greet him as "Mr. Russell."

Freshman Alvin Grassrope, in his first year of JROTC, said he likes the program and doesn't have any problems taking orders. "It teaches me respect and gives me more self-confidence," Grassrope said. He plans to stay in JROTC through high school.

Lower Brule Superintendent Philip Severson also praised Iwen and the other instructor, retired 1st Sgt. Edward Biggers. "They really take it to heart," he said, including taking cadets to summer camp.

Iwen credits support from the administration and faculty for the program's success.

He said he and Biggers are the only teachers who "drop students for pushups."

Russell said the pushups are the one thing teachers don't like. "Teachers would rather see a write-up or detention." Russell, who served with the Army's First Cavalry Division in Vietnam, said he probably sides with the teachers on the pushups, but "I'll let these guys do it until we start hearing grief from the parents."

Other than that, Russell said he doesn't hear any negatives about the program from teachers or parents.

The community also has been impressed with the JROTC cadets taking meals to the elderly and marching in uniform through town, Russell said.

Parents also liked Iwen's military dining-in awards ceremony this fall, where he presented ribbons and promotions the cadets earned the previous year.

Wallace and Iwen say JROTC also emphasizes academics. The students are taught history, citizenship, written and oral communication, technology and job-search skills.

Coleman said he has a much better grasp of current events because of JROTC.

Iwen says JROTC also fills a gap that academic courses can't. "Students get the English and the math. What they don't get is a course on how to be successful and what it takes to be successful off the rez."

Of course, for students such as Grassrope and Coleman, a big draw remains traveling to other places to serve as color guards for events like the LNI.

"It's all-out fun," Coleman said.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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