Though he hasn't yet been hired, Van Horn has already been at the school firing up interest in the unit. More than 100 students attended his orientation, and as he concluded, he asked how many thought they would join the unit. Almost everyone raised their hand.
Officially, the program will be called the Junior Guard. The first Junior Guard unit was formed eight years ago in Barren County, but the five districts that currently have the program all had to find a Guard member to volunteer their time to lead the unit and students don't get credit for the courses they take. Lincoln County High's program is groundbreaking because here the unit leader is a school district employee, and Junior Guard members will get credit for the program as social studies and physical education electives.
The Guard will provide uniforms and equipment, and a Guard engineering unit, currently deployed, has been tapped to build an obstacle course and a rope course.
In addition to Van Horn, the National Guard is funding the salary of Assistant Instructor Staff Sgt. Chas Garcia.
Garcia is a 2001 Boyle County graduate who joined the Guard right out of high school. He has coached the Bate Middle School Boys Soccer team from 2001 to 2006. In that time, he led the team to four division titles and a second-place division finish. He left his coaching position in 2006 when his unit was sent to Iraq. He returned to Danville in August of 2007.
Van Horn, who grew up in Wilmore, and Garcia both are interested in helping students succeed, whether they choose military service or not. The Junior Guard program strives to develop personal traits and skills that students can use regardless of the career path they choose. The curriculum focuses on developing an appreciation of ethical values and principals, developing both leadership skills and teamsmanship, improving physical fitness, and helping students think logically and communicate effectively.
The Kentucky Center for School Safety reports that the Junior Guard has a positive impact on students. In Monroe County, for example, data indicate that students in the program have improved attendance rates and academic performance. The average grades for the first three groups participating in the project have improved between 8 and 15 percent each year. Attendance rates have also improved between 7 and 36 percent each year. All of the Junior Guard members who participated all through high school graduated.
With the program's start two months away, Van Horn attributes the unit's inception to two people: Wes Cornett and Sgt. First Class Steve Dismuke. Sgt. Dismuke, a local Guard recruiter, formed the JROTC club at the school last year in his spare time generating lots of interest. It was Dismuke who sold Garcia on the job at Lincoln when he heard Garcia was available for assignment.
All students who are interested in the Junior Guard are welcome to sign up for the program with their guidance counselor. While everyone is welcome to participate, only those who are willing to meet the U.S. Army's height, weight and grooming standards will be issued uniforms. Judging by the enthusiasm at the high school Friday, there could be a lot of freshly shaved faces in the LCHS halls in January.