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Photo credit: Steve Arel, Accessions Command Public Affairs

RADCLIFF, Ky. (Army News Service, March 11, 2011) -- Against a backdrop of banners, students and a crowd of several hundred people, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and other national leaders officially unveiled Project PASS here today at North Middle School, one of the first host sites.

Project PASS - Partnership for All Student Success - is an umbrella for high schools that feature Junior ROTC and middle schools with a new program called the Junior Leadership Corps for seventh- and eighth-grade students. Casey and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan heralded the initiative as a potential life-changer for students in need of structure and motivation.

The program will go a long way in helping students "achieve whatever their dreams may be," Casey said. "America is a lot of things today, but America is still a country of dreams."

For nearly a century Junior ROTC has taken armies of impressionable high school students and pointed them in the right direction. Boys and girls who lacked focus and drive found discipline and determination on the way to becoming better students and productive citizens.

The regimented program annually translates in results: 96 percent of JROTC Cadets graduate high school, and just as many go on to college.

National educators have long recognized the benefits of JROTC, and some hope the new Army program will also help transform young, troubled students into good ones; and good students into great ones. They hope it will have as significant an impact as JRTC has had, only on an even younger group.

The new Junior Leadership Corps targets students in seventh and eighth grade, considered the time in a young person's educational development where they start looking toward a career path or at dropping out.

The challenges facing students who are part of Project PASS are not unique, Duncan said. The difference for them is the opportunity they have through the initiative.

"There are no good jobs for dropouts," he said. "If we can provide opportunities before it's too late, I can promise you they're going to be successful going forward."

Hardin County Schools is one of four districts to launch Project PASS. Other ceremonies will be held in the coming weeks at school districts in Christian County, Ky., Miami-Dade, Fla., Gwinnett County, Ga., and Garden City, Kan.

The JLC actually started in January at two northern Hardin County, Ky., middle schools: North Middle and James T. Alton, and boasts an enrollment of 165 students.

The JLC, an elective course, functions much like the high school program. Its curriculum is patterned after JROTC; students wear uniforms weekly like their JROTC counterparts and JLC students participate in extra-curricular activities and community projects - like JROTC.

A PASS community coordinator will oversee day-to-day operations of the Junior Leadership Corps and work with various organizations and businesses locally to generate support and establish relationships with the program.

Middle schools that feed into high schools with Junior ROTC programs were chosen for PASS. The intent is to introduce students to a program of leader and character development using military-style techniques as early as seventh grade and allow them to continue throughout high school, if they choose.

PASS is a three-year pilot that is being funded by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Brenda Welburn, the association's executive director, helped spearhead the program. PASS is designed in part off her belief in the holistic teaching of children - academically, socially and morally.

And it's a potential deterrent to quitting school altogether, a rampant problem with far-reaching effects. In fact, one student in America drops out of school every 22 seconds, she said.

"All students should realize their amazing potential," Welburn said. "As my friend (Accessions Command commander Lt.) General (Benjamin) Freakley says, 'We've got to get after it.' And Project PASS aims to do that."

Before Friday's ceremony, Casey and Duncan took time to visit with some of the JLC students inside a North Middle classroom. They said they wanted to observe the class and get some feedback on the course from the people PASS intends to reach.

Students told the two they have garnered more self-esteem and confidence, and that their grades had improved because of an increased focus on their studies.

As the nation's education secretary, Duncan visits numerous schools throughout the year. He sees some where the outlook is bleak and there are few signs of hope - in the school and in the surrounding community.

But Duncan said he was encouraged by what he saw Friday at North Middle.

"Because of you," he told those in attendance, "I'm very hopeful of where this country is going."