But what George says really sealed the deal was talking to another cadet: George was thinking of joining ROTC at college, from which you graduate a military officer, but a West Point–bound senior convinced him he'd have more control over the Army branch he was assigned to if he graduated from the academy instead. George will be the sixth student from Lowell to head to West Point in the last 12 years.

George isn't a guy who seems easily brainwashed. The 17-year-old has a 3.2 GPA in San Francisco's most rigorous public high school, he faces resistance from his parents who don't want him in the military, and he says he seriously reconsidered West Point after reading a scathing Web site review. But after weighing it all, George wants to give it a shot.

Bullard supports his decision, even if George's parents do not. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Bullard drove his student out to Travis Air Force Base to get the boots West Point cadets wear each day. George wants to break them in over the summer.

Lowell High School JROTC members wear their uniforms only once a month after school this year while the school board debates their existence.
Jake Poehls
Lowell High School JROTC members wear their uniforms only once a month after school this year while the school board debates their existence.
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma waits to speak in favor of the program
Gabriela Hasbun
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma waits to speak in favor of the program

As this story goes to print, the JROTC teeters in limbo. Last week, Assemblywoman Ma's bill passed in the assembly's education committee, along with a related bill by Assemblywoman Mary Salas that would return PE credit to the program. Current school board members warn that the bill sets a dangerous precedent for the state to step on a local board's authority, but it has one potential fiscal benefit: The legislature's appropriations committee will mull whether the state would foot the bill for certain costs, since the program would be reinstated by state mandate.

Commissioner Norman Yee, meanwhile, has been considered a swing vote on the issue locally. He was one of only two commissioners voting to support JROTC in 2006, but also voted to take away the PE credit last summer. He says he remains consistent: "If nothing changes, I haven't changed my view." But the JROTC instructors are crossing their fingers. "It's San Francisco, and you never know until the last vote is passed," Balboa instructor Gerry Paratore says. "I've got to see him vote before I believe it."

If JROTC loses, what will take its place? The district is developing other leadership programs, such as four-year training for students to become first responders to earthquakes or natural disasters in conjunction with the city's Department of Emergency Management, yet only a nine-week pilot course would be available for just three or four schools next fall. Military critics say that kids will be initially resistant to any program that's not JROTC. "It's like shitty vending machines," counterrecruiter Paredes says. "It's not that they're good for you, but they'll still be pissed when they take them out."

JROTC instructors say the cut will hurt underprivileged students the hardest. Mission High's program exposes kids to things the instructors say most students' parents can't afford, such as the San Francisco Opera, horse-riding, or ice skating. Sarge says he often loans suits to the boys so they can attend the annual Battalion Ball at the Presidio. One cadet said that when her mom told her to get out of the house, she called Sarge to come pick her up; she now refers to him as "Dad."

Critics think creating role models with military trappings is dangerous. "I think it's entirely inappropriate to have someone in the military in front of such impressionable 14-year-olds," says ex-Commissioner Mark Sanchez, an eighth-grade teacher.

Then there's the threat that the district will lose more kids. Randy Laxa, a student at Burton High, says he would probably have transferred to a continuation high school if it weren't for drum corps practice, and without it next year, "I wouldn't really want to go to school at all anymore."

While still largely in denial, the instructors have faced the reality of having to find new jobs. Cadet Command will be starting 265 new JROTC programs nationwide over the next three years under this year's National Defense Authorization Act, and Bullard says he might apply to head up a program elsewhere. Yet in his office at Lowell, minutes before a student popped her head in to invite him to celebrate a cadet's birthday, he grew pensive. "If this program goes away, I'm gonna fall apart. These kids are the biggest part of my life."

The kids are holding out hope. In a conversation between two juniors at Balboa, it seems the JROTC debate had taught them less about democracy — they did get 55 percent of voters behind them, but not a change in policy — than politics.

"We're trying our best to stay on the good side of politicians," Tony Chen said.

"It's appeasement," Alvin Lam added.

"We're not breaking any rules right now — what do they want?" Chen said. "All I see is benefits" of JROTC. "I don't see any downsides." Then he remembered where he was, and smirked: "San Francisco is a liberal city, after all."

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