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Park High School's JROTC Program Building Future Leaders

03/16/2017

Army SFC (retired) Guadalupe Berrios wants to make one thing clear. He’s not here to recruit.

“I am here to provide guidance. Guidance that maybe these students aren’t getting at school or at home.”

In fact, it’s the type of guidance he so desperately needed when he was in high school. The type of guidance that eventually took this teenage college drop-out and turned him into a respectable and well-established sergeant in the U.S. Army.

“I grew up in the ghetto in Puerto Rico,” Sgt. Berrios explained. “I was that kid in my family that teachers would say was never going to amount to much.” 

It’s why, after 24 years in the Army, he retired and has now devoted his career to making sure that high school students never feel that way.

“It is my job to take these young individuals, to inspire them, help them see their full potential and turn them into future leaders in our community,” Sgt. Berrios said.

Sgt. Berrios is Park High School’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program teacher at Racine Unified School District. On Jan. 23, RUSD launched the brand new program at Park High School.

JROTC is a program offered to high schools that teaches them character education, student achievement, wellness, leadership and diversity. It is a cooperative effort between the Army and the high schools to produce successful students and citizens, while fostering in each school a more constructive and disciplined learning environment.

“I don’t have a lesson I teach that doesn’t apply to what these students are faced with today and in their future,” Sgt. Berrios said.

In the first two months of the program, 35 students have signed up. Owen Slaasted, a junior at Park, is one of them.

“I think a lot of people think that it’s a class to whip the troublemakers into shape,” Slaasted said. “But it’s not. It’s for the people like me who want to better themselves and become leaders.”

Since he joined the program, Slaasted says his attitude toward school has improved.

“I am more disciplined in my classes,” Slaasted said. “I feel like I have a more long-term view on things. In the past, I would think, ‘what do I get out of this today?’ Now, I look at it like, ‘how is this going to benefit me in a week, a month or even in my career?’”

As part of the JROTC program, students get an education in citizenship, leadership, social and communication skills, physical fitness and wellness, geography and civics. They learn basic drill commands, formations, even practice Color Guard with hopes one day to compete.

“It makes you feel good because you know you’re doing something valuable,” said Park High School student Seth Scholzen. “We are all voluntarily in this class because we want to be.”

And it’s making a difference outside of the classroom, too.

“Teachers are telling me that they are seeing a change from some of their students. In the hallways, kids are more respectful and less disruptive,” Sgt. Berrios said.

The program, funded via a 50/50 partnership between Racine Unified and the United States Army, is the only ROTC program in the District. Approved by the Board of Education earlier this year, the JROTC program provides another option for students and a Pathway within the Academies of Racine.

The Academies of Racine, launched this fall at Case, Horlick and Park High Schools, are designed to ensure students are better prepared for college and the workforce. In changing the curriculum, developing small learning communities and better connecting with local businesses and organizations, the Academies will help students graduate with a plan.​

A plan that Slaasted really hadn’t thought too much about. Until now.

“Being part of this program has made me realize that I do want to pursue a career in the military,” Slaasted said. “But, you want to know the coolest part? Even if I change my mind and don’t end up as a soldier, I know what I am learning today, in this room, will help me succeed throughout my life.”