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Bipartisan bill could save Phoenixville Air Force JROTC program

PHOENIXVILLE — The Air Force Junior ROTC program at Phoenixville Area High School may have just extended its flight plan.

U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th Dist., has introduced a bipartisan bill that would amend the federal statute, helping mid-size schools like Phoenixville to better meet the student (cadet) enrollment requirements. The legislation is also led by Republican House member Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret who, by happy coincidence, serves Florida’s 6th Dist.

In November, the Air Force notified Phoenixville Schools Superintendent Missy McTiernan that the unit would be deactivated at the end of the current school year due to the unit’s failure to maintain a minimum enrollment of 10% of the school population or 100 students, whichever is less.

Phoenixville High School has more than 1,250 students and the JROTC unit there has about 65 members.

In a March 4 letter to Houlahan and Pennsylvania’s two senators — Sens. Bob Casey Jr. and John Fetterman, both Democrats — the Phoenixville School Board argued that the minimum enrollment was “an unreasonably high minimum, particularly for small and medium-sized schools, that would require it to be among the largest extracurricular activities in the school.”

The bill introduced would lower the threshold for the number of students needed to maintain a JROTC program at schools from 100 to 50 students

U. S. Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan

U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan

“When 23% of Air Force JROTC programs aren’t meeting cadet enrollment requirements, it’s pretty clear the status quo isn’t working,” Houlahan said in a press release announcing the bill. “As a veteran and former teacher, I was truly upset when I heard the news about the Phoenixville Air Force JROTC program closure. But as our representative in Congress, I was also resolved to do something about it.

“This bipartisan bill is a direct result of students, parents, educators, and our community leaders making their voices heard – I want to thank them for standing up for a program that deserves all of our support. I also want to thank my colleague Rep. Waltz for his leadership. It’s my sincere hope that the Air Force listens to our request and keeps this program and others open while Congress addresses additional ways to support cadets, instructors, and schools.”

“Our JROTC programs help promote civic participation amongst our youth and help address the recruitment shortfalls our military faces today,” Waltz said in the same press release. “Currently, there are 3,499 JROTC programs operating across America, which is far below the Congressionally authorized limit,” he said. “The more programs available to students, no matter their size, the better.”

The news of the bill was welcomed in Phoenixville.

“Phoenixville’s Air Force JROTC provides invaluable contributions to our school district and our broader community while teaching 65 hard-working cadets the importance of public service and critical lifelong skills,” said Phoenixville School Board President Susan Turner. “We are honored and excited that Reps. Houlahan and Waltz recognize how valuable JROTC programs are for Phoenixville and communities across the country and thank them for working so quickly to introduce this crucial bipartisan legislation to protect them.”

School Board Vice President Scott Overland said “On behalf of the entire Phoenixville Area School Board and community I want to thank Congresswoman Houlahan for working so quickly to save our AFJROTC program. The bipartisan legislation introduced would not only save Phoenixville’s AFJROTC program but would allow JROTC cadets across Pennsylvania and the nation to continue learning the importance of public service along with values and skills that will equip them for lifelong success. I hope this commonsense bill will move quickly through Congress and make its way to President Biden’s desk!”

As for the immediate future, Overland added “We heard from the Air Force colonel who oversees the JROTC programs and he has agreed to delay the closure of our program for a year while the legislative fix is in the works.”

During the year, the Phoenixville High School Air Force Junior ROTC students often "present the colors" at events like football games. (Photo courtesy of Drew Raudenbush)
During the year, the Phoenixville High School Air Force Junior ROTC students often “present the colors” at events like football games. (Photo courtesy of Drew Raudenbush)

Earlier this year, the Department of the Air Force announced that 193 of 841 Air Force JROTC units were non-viable due to cadet enrollment requirements. Of the 193 nonviable units, five were notified for closure including the program in Phoenixville.

In response, Houlahan, Waltz and two additional colleagues wrote a letter in January to Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall asking him to reconsider the closure of these programs, which includes Phoenixville.

This is not the first time Houlahan has stepped in to save Air Force JROTC programs in Chester County.

In 2020, Houlahan helped save the Coatesville Air Force JROTC program, which is now thriving after nearly doubling its enrollment due to partnerships with nearby schools such as Oxford and Downingtown. In response to news about the Phoenixville AFJROTC program, the instructor at the Coatesville AFJROTC program sent a letter to Houlahan.

“JROTC is more than a citizen development program,” wrote program instructor Lt. Col. Ret. James E. Turnbull, USAF, in an April 9 letter. “The AFJROTC curriculum is STEM-based. In addition to aerospace science, there are numerous STEM-related extracurricular activities such as robotics, drones, model rocketry, flight simulators and academic bowls to name a few.

“AFJROTC cadets become school and community ambassadors,” Turnbull wrote. “Collectively, they participate in hundreds of school district and community events per year and accumulate thousands of community service hours. They range from cleaning local parks to helping at the Special Olympics and food banks to presenting our nation’s colors at various events and marching in local parades.

“Since you were able to save our JROTC program back in 2020, we have seen steady growth in our enrollment due to the addition of crosstown agreements with the Oxford Area School District and Downingtown Area,” Turnbull continued. “The number of students increased from 63 in 2020 to 111 last year. The program’s expansion provides more students in the area with the opportunity to reap the benefits of JROTC. In the last few years, we’ve been able to reach more students, impact more lives, and do more good for our community.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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