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MOUNT WASHINGTON - It’s a crisp autumn morning at Bullitt East High School and while most students are sitting quietly in their classrooms, outside a group of their peers are doing push-ups.
“One sir...two sir...,” the more than two dozen students shout in unison.
Standing before them are Junior Guard instructors Sergeant First Class Robert Warren and Lieutenant Justin Owens.
“I can’t hear you,” Warren yells, provoking the students to count louder.
After a few more calisthenics, the students hit the locker room and head to class with their instructors.
Back in the classroom, Owens, Warren and their students discuss the morning lesson and physical training session, or PT.
The students appear engaged in the recap. They’re attentive and responsive. They address their instructors as sir.
When the bell rings signaling the end of class, they remain focused on Warren and Owens.
Discipline and respect are paramount in the Bullitt East Junior Guard Program, which kicked off at the beginning of the school year.
The Kentucky Army National Guard Junior Guard program is brand new to Bullitt East.
Kentucky boasts only half a dozen programs of its kind and while many schools offer Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or JROTC, Junior Guard is a fairly new concept, as Owens and Warren explained.
The idea behind Junior Guard was to develop a program that could meet the increasing demand for military-style courses to accommodate students considering entering the armed forces after high school.
Owens said Junior Guard is a valuable resource for those considering military careers, but it’s only part of what the program is about.
“It’s not simply a military recruitment program,” Owens said. “We want students to leave this classroom prepared for life...For those who want to join the military they’re ahead of the game.”
The concept behind the program is bringing military and civilian theory together in a way that gets students thinking about their futures, according to Warren.
“The point isn’t getting them to join the guard, but to show them options and careers, whether they’re civilian or military,” he said.
“A lot of kids aren’t learning the skills they need...our goal is to make sure they have the tools to succeed.”
Warren said Junior Guard seeks to prepare students for life after high school by exposing them to practical skills useful in all vocations.
As instructors, Warren and Owens work to bring their students’ life skills up to speed in a military environment centered on discipline.
Students learn workplace skills, how to write resumes and fill out job applications, tips for college and personal budgeting, conflict resolution and emergency preparedness. Students are versed in military history and national security issues as well.
The semester course also features guest speakers, including Army National Guard recruiters and other professionals who give presentations intended to get students thinking about their futures.
Owens said many of the students in the program lack positive influence in their lives, which is one of the reasons why the program is so important.
In addition to the character building curriculum Junior Guard provides, the program promotes drug free lifestyles and gives at risk youth and low achieving students positive role models.
“Sometimes all it takes is for someone to talk to them,” Owens said.
Warren said the number one focus of the program is to see that students are college and career ready. The second focus is preparing students bound for military careers and the third is inspiring leadership.
“Leadership and management are among the most important aspects of the program,” Warren said. “We want our students to be prepared whether they’re working at McDonalds as a team leader or as a manager at a large company.”
Instructors are challenged to keep students on track through empowerment.
Some students are assigned a military rank based on the number of years in the program, grades, behavior and attendance, providing strong incentives for participants to make improvements in these areas.
Owens said students learn discipline, accountability and problem solving as they take on leadership roles.
“You’ve got to come to the table with a solution not just a problem,” Owens said. “We want students to think outside the box.”
Students also learn the importance of physical fitness and maintaining healthy lives through nutrition and fitness education, and PT.
Though Junior Guard lasts a semester, it’s designed for students who want to continue with the program throughout high school.
Instructors guide students through progressive skill levels each semester and seniors focus on preparing for college.
Both Warren and Owen stressed that as instructors they make sure students fulfill criteria required by the Kentucky Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Defense.
And for students interested in activities outside of school, Junior Guard goes beyond the classroom with dozens of extracurricular opportunities, including military-prep and community service.
Warren and Owens said they see the program as a positive addition to any school and they hope the program continues well into the future.
“It’s just a great program,” Owens said.