Although San Clemente High has a program no other school in the southern half of Orange County does, its administrators are more than willing to host students from other schools to be a part of something intended to build character and set up its participants for success.
The school’s U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program kicked off at the start of the 2023-2024 school year, after administrators rushed to prepare everything before the first day of school.
Nataleigh Oblenes, one of 27 Capistrano Unified School District students involved in the program, heard of the JROTC through word of mouth and wanted to get a head start on her aspirations of being an Army medic.
“I wanted to join mainly because I wanted to learn about leadership, and overall because I’m planning on joining the military, so it’s like preparation for me,” she said.
Principal Chris Carter said the lack of JROTC programs in the area was a well-known fact, mentioning his school’s own unsuccessful attempt to establish a Navy program roughly nine years ago.
CUSD Trustee Amy Hanacek was the one who broached the possibility of having JROTC at the school, according to Carter.
“A lot of it comes down to funding,” he said. “The Marines no longer fund them, the Navy was not looking to expand, as far as we knew, but the Army was eager.”
With the help of teacher and retired Navy pilot Patrick O’Rourke, the school took a year to complete the application process amongst roughly 16 other schools, receiving approval in February.
While SCHS didn’t fit the Army’s desired profile with regards to a population of underprivileged students, O’Rourke said the Army liked the school’s proximity to Camp Pendleton and number of students from the base, as well as the wealth of space for storage, classes, drills and other activities at the Upper Campus.
The Army provided $150,000 in equipment, including uniforms, shoes and fake rifles for drills, and will split the cost of paying for each instructor with CUSD.
Carter said they had to work to get the district on board in addition to submitting an application. In addition to his time speaking with other CUSD administrators, he and O’Rourke engaged with district personnel to secure their support, emphasizing their plans for after-school activities to encourage participation from all over the area.
“You can be a Dolphin and still be in JROTC, you can still be a Stallion and be in JROTC,” Carter of the neighboring Dana Hills High and San Juan Hills High, respectively. “We were trying to say, if you want to come up from Oceanside or if you want to come down from Irvine, we want to be able to have space for you.”
Cary Johnson, assistant superintendent of CUSD’s Curriculum & Instruction support staff, was the staffer who further discussed the subject with other district executives, according to Carter, as the district would have financial obligations if the program was approved.
Carter and O’Rourke pitched the investment to the district, the principal said, and O’Rourke stepped up as a liaison to organize how the school would recruit for and pay instructors.
“He did much of the legwork for me, so I’m very fortunate to have him do all the communications with the powers that be outside the district,” Carter said of O’Rourke, adding that he himself took care of communicating with students and others inside the CUSD footprint.
JROTC teaches leadership skills and dedication to its “cadets,” in addition to providing experience for those who desire to join the military.
O’Rourke said that although it gives aspiring servicemembers a “head start” before leaving high school, cadets learn lessons intended to benefit them throughout their lives.
The new program fits well within SCHS’ existing programs that provide pathways for students to find success after graduation, according to Carter. He added that JROTC is not a recruiting arm for the Army, which helps the school avoid scrutiny while in a Marine town.
“It actually would love to give kids the skill set to be able to enter the armed forces someday, but we will promote and share the benefits of all the armed forces,” Carter said.
Cadets attend class three times a week; on Mondays during the shortened bell schedule, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays as part of the block schedule. JROTC only has enough students to occupy the fourth and sixth periods.
As the program progresses toward the goal of at least 100 students, O’Rourke said, the school will look to add more classes and another instructor.
JROTC programs must have at least two instructors, according to Carter, a commissioned officer and a non-commissioned officer. Because the Army’s approval only happened with five months left before the beginning of the current school year, and no leeway in starting the program beyond August, SCHS was allowed to operate with one teacher, Sgt. Allen Tran.
“Chris did an amazing job getting the district to jump through all those hoops to make it happen in such a short time frame,” O’Rourke said. “They’ve been really flexible … Getting the district on board was harder than getting accepted. That was really tough.”
Tran said that although the first few weeks of school have been difficult in terms of getting everything situated, the classes have gone well. He called his cadets “respectful” and “hungry” to learn.
Having participated in an Air Force JROTC program himself in San Bernardino, Tran recognizes the positive change the program’s lessons and further service in the military does for young minds.
“As a recruiter, I talked to kids all the time, and I (saw) them change, from high school students to soldiers to (having) families and buying houses,” he said. “The change is good.”
Several students are interested in attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy, including JROTC Battalion Commander Aaron Letwin. Letwin, a SC High senior, aspires to become a commissioned officer and join the Army’s airborne infantry.
JROTC is essentially a student-run program, Letwin said, where the cadets’ determination to accomplish objectives is crucial to everyone’s success. His goal is to help each person get what they want out of participating in the program.
He’s had a leadership role before, as a senior patrol leader for his Boy Scouts troop, but Letwin said it wasn’t the same as his current opportunity.
“There is something special about JROTC that you can’t get anywhere else, as a high schooler or really anywhere in any stage of your life,” he said.
Cadets are split into companies based on which JROTC period they attend, so fourth period is the Alpha Company and sixth is Bravo Company. Each period also has its own commander.
After school, students can participate in extracurricular teams, which can include physical training exercises and distance running for Raider competitions, and armed and unarmed drill teams.
Abigail DeJong, a SC High sophomore who wants to join the Army, said the program has been a breath of fresh air from regular school.
“It’s been exciting,” she said. “It’s also very refreshing because the people here really care, like (Letwin) is gentle and he cares what you think.”
SC High junior Mackenzie Navaretté, who looks to enter the Navy, said it will be helpful to learn about related subjects and understand how to do the drills before she’s thrown into them in college.
Other students, like juniors Micah Briscoe and Nataleigh Oblenes, are excited to learn more about themselves and others, and prepare for life during and after military service.
Tran said a lot more work needs to be done to keep the program on a good trajectory, as they hope to utilize grass space for an archery range and an obstacle course for training. He added that the Army will provide drones and robotics in the future.
Further, JROTC will need to set up a transportation system to bring students from other schools to campus, and a landing page for all those interested in joining, according to Tran.