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Mars, Pine-Richland Air Force JROTC in jeopardy due to cadet shortage

Pine-Richland/Mars Area U.S. Air Force JROTC set to work Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023, preparing the annual 9/11 memorial at Mars Area High School. Austin Uram/Butler Eagle

Six years ago, a partnership began between Mars Area and Pine-Richland school districts, allowing Mars high school students to join the neighboring district’s U.S. Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

The partnership, created to bolster cadet enrollment at Pine-Richland after the school district received a closure letter, now is in jeopardy because a lack of cadets threatens to close the program by the end of the school year, said instructor Chief Master Sgt. Michael Gasparetto.

The required number of cadets is 100, Gasparetto said. At present, 82 students are enrolled in the program. Twenty-two are seniors, which drops the number to 60 after those students graduate, he said.

Close to one-third of cadets are from Mars Area School District.

As the elective runs on Wednesdays and Thursdays during first period, he said, Mars students arrive at Pine-Richland around 7:40 a.m. and leave in time for second period at 8:20 a.m. It’s about a nine minute bus ride.

“(Enrollment) kind of ebbs and flows depending on the year,” Gasparetto said. “In the past two years, we were under the mandated 100 cadets we needed to have. Two years prior, we had over 100. Going even further back, we’ve kind of been more under than over.”

Following an inspection by a regional director in November, Gasparetto said he received a letter stating the program was “on probation.”

Gasparetto said the inspection was held not to verify enrollment — which was already known — but to examine the quality of the program.

The inspection found the Air Force JROTC program “exceeded standards,” Gasparetto said.

“The inspector commended the cadets’ professionalism … how well they ran the program,” he said.

“If we don’t get our numbers at least moving in a good direction to show we’re making progress, we could close doors at end of this school year,” Gasparetto said.

To show the program is making headway in enrollment, the count should be in the nineties, Gasparetto said. The program has to report its enrollment numbers again on March 31, which leaves just over a month to recruit students.

In the face of closing, both the program and Pine-Richland administration have mounted strong recruiting efforts amid scheduling season, and Gasparetto said he’s optimistic the numbers of cadets will grow.

Gasparetto said information on the program has been mailed to students and families, instructors have held presentations and the high school principal has spoken directly to parents on the subject.

The program has also relaxed its uniform and grooming standards for first-year cadets, which seems to play a role in recruitment, Mars board director Kevin Hagen told the school board at a meeting Monday, as he expressed concern about the shortage.

“A lot of times, students don’t want to wear a uniform or cut their hair,” Gasparetto said. “If we lose somebody in the first two weeks … it’s likely because of that.”

He noted multiple variables contribute to the cadet shortage.

Gasparetto said many students are busy with a number of other responsibilities and extracurricular activities, and scheduling conflicts may occur. The program is offered as an elective, and students may already have other electives in mind.

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “And a student has to be willing to do something different, because we are different. We’re different in a good way, but different.”

Hagen has two children in the Air Force JROTC program, he said in a phone call on Wednesday.

He said his daughter, Abby, has posted on Facebook in support of the program, encouraging parents to consider Air Force JROTC with a nod to upcoming scheduling for the spring semester.

Hagen said Abby joined the program as a sophomore after seeing her brother participate in a drill competition. He and Gasparetto both said the program’s intention is not to recruit for the military.

Gasparetto said 4% of cadets worldwide end up joining the military, and said the program focuses on life skills, community service, leadership and character development.

Danila Nebzorov, a sophomore, with the Pine-Richland/Mars Area U.S. Air Force JROTC program prepares to place flags Sept. 7, for the annual 9/11 memorial at Mars Area High School. Butler Eagle File Photo

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