RALEIGH — Moments after walking into Millbrook High School's Junior ROTC room, it's obvious that the students running the show aren't typical high schoolers.
The precocious teenagers are well-mannered. They're hard-working.
And they credit much of their discipline to the school's new program.
"It has really taught me how to be a better person," said Chad May, 15, a sophomore. "My grades have improved drastically since joining."
Millbrook is the fifth and latest Wake County school to add a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program - a high school elective that offers classes taught by retired military personnel in areas such as leadership, citizenship and physical fitness.
Millbrook High, on Spring Forest Road in North Raleigh, launched its program last fall. It's a major accomplishment for the school at a time when demand for the programs from all military service branches is rising.
Despite an unpopular war in Iraq, almost 700 schools are on waiting lists.
Millbrook's program has about 100 students, some of whom will start competing against other schools next month.
Some students, such as May, are on the raider team, which competes in physical competitions similar to an obstacle course. Others are in the color guard, drill team or staff positions.
The staff runs all of the day-to-day operations, including maintaining a Web site, sending permission slips home with other cadets and making travel plans for events.
Lt. Col. Darrel Johnson, one of two instructors, insists it's not an Army recruiting program.
He says it's a leadership course that uses the Army model to teach loyalty and respect.
"The whole thing is student-run," said Johnson, who has served in Korea, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. "By the time we get more seniors, we'll really be able to sit back and let them lead."
Most of the staff is composed of freshmen and sophomores. For each of them, the program has helped in different ways.
Ashlynne Zeeff, 15, said she was too impatient before joining.
"I think I've really learned to channel that," Zeeff said while putting the cadets' information into a database.
About 480,000 students nationwide are enrolled in Junior ROTC programs at 3,400 secondary schools. That's up from about 450,000 students in 2,900 schools last decade, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. And during the 2008-2009 school year, JROTC students gave more than 8.6 million hours of community service.
Participants are not required to join the military later, but 30 percent to 50 percent of JROTC students do. That's one of the reasons some groups, especially in liberal cities such as San Francisco, have tried to keep JROTC programs out of high schools.
Supporters point to the academic success of Junior ROTC students. At the four other Wake high schools with JROTC programs - Broughton, Sanderson, Cary and Wake Forest-Rolesville - school officials say 95 percent to 99 percent of the cadets graduate on time, far above the system's average.
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