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‘We held on and stuck together’: Allen High School’s Navy Junior ROTC wins most improved award under new leadership

Allen High School’s Navy Junior ROTC senior naval science instructor Adam Kruppa. (April Gamiz/The Morning Call/TNS)

During the spring of 2021-22, Angel Villanueva and other upperclassmen at Allen High School tried their best to maintain a sense of normalcy for fellow cadets when the school’s Navy Junior ROTC was without instructors.

“We tried to keep the schedule the same even though there were no teachers. We tried to still keep that family bond with our fellow classmates in JROTC,” Villanueva, now a recent Allen graduate, said. “It was sad at some points, but we held on and stuck together.”

Instructors for Allen’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps had left the program for various reasons, and the class was subsequently run by determined students and substitute teachers, who though well-intentioned, didn’t have the necessary military knowledge to properly lead the class.

As a result, some students came to view NJROTC as an extra study hall. Others lost interest in NJROTC activities altogether, such as wearing uniforms, because they weren’t being graded on participation anymore. These struggles were compounded by the dip in engagement the program was already facing since returning to in-person learning after the height of the pandemic.

It’s fair to say Cmdr. A.J. Kruppa and Gunnery Sgt. Charles Mahala had a challenge on their hands when they first began leading Allen’s NJROTC program in the fall of 2022. But by the end of this past school year, Allen’s NJROTC had been totally transformed, and cadets earned the distinction of being the most improved unit in the northeast region.

“It definitely was easier having instructors and a lot more people to rely on,” said Maria Terrones Mesias, a recent Allen grad and former acting cadet commander.

Corey Cowen, assistant principal at Allen, helped manage the hiring process that brought on Kruppa and Mahala, whose positions are funded by both the district and military.

“We’re taking people who’ve already completed a career in the military, which is in itself somewhat unique, and then transitioning them into an educational role, using the experience that they have from the military,” Cowen said.

Kruppa served in the Navy more than 20 years, before retiring as a Navy officer in 2021. In his last officer position, Kruppa managed the two Navy bases located in Philadelphia. He then worked as an NJROTC instructor for a year in New Jersey before coming to Allen.

“I was uneasy thinking about a program with cadets missing out on opportunities purely because they just didn’t have instructors there available for them,” Kruppa said.

Allen’s NJROTC program was established in 1986 and had a “great reputation” throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Kruppa said.

“They used to be competing at the national level regularly,” he said. “They would host regional competitions at William Allen High School, and they were always winning.”

But in the years since, the program wasn’t performing as strongly.

Kruppa said his goal coming into the position was to get Allen’s program “closer to the reputation that it had, but also create its own identity moving forward.”

He did this, along with Mahala, by reinstituting uniform checks, strengthening academics and introducing competitive teams.

The most recent group of senior cadets hadn’t participated in any competitions throughout their time in NJROTC until Kruppa took over.

Students competed in two drill competitions this past school year in the unarmed category, in which students follow commands and march in unison.

Terrones Mesias said her favorite part of drill is the “precision and accuracy and paying attention to details.”

Allen’s NJROTC hasn’t been to the Navy’s national drill competition since 1999. Kruppa said his long-term goal for the unit is to get back to nationals, but that starts with becoming more competitive at the regional level throughout the next five years, he said.

In the fall, Allen’s drill teams will also start training for the armed category, which involves carrying ceremonial rifles, and the exhibition category, which is a more creative form of drill.

Cadets can also compete on an academic team, answering trivia questions about current events or naval science topics. Cadets won a regional academic competition this year and placed 24th nationally.

There’s also a national academic exam every year that cadets participate in; Allen won the exam five times in the 90s. Kruppa hopes to see cadets recreate this success in the future.

Additionally, Allen’s NJROTC has athletic, marksmanship, color guard, personnel inspection and indoor drone teams. There’s also an orienteering team that competes in scavenger hunts.

Next year, instructors will be implementing two more new teams: a CyberPatriot team and a SeaPerch team.

Through the CyberPatriot team, students will be trained in cybersecurity to protect organizations from hackers. The SeaPerch team will build underwater robotic machines and navigate the vehicles through obstacle courses.

“We didn’t just want to use the first year to re-establish the academic side of the program to the minimal level, because they were substandard,” Kruppa said. “We didn’t just want to come to the minimum, we wanted to excel. We wanted to offer the competitive side, so we started the team practices.”

When it comes to NJROTC academics, students learn about naval history and military vocabulary in class. They also wear their uniforms, practice drill, and have sports days that include team-building exercises.

At the end of the 2022-23 academic year, there were more than 40 cadets in Allen’s NJROTC program, who together won the Unit Achievement Award, which only 50% of the 64 high schools in the northeast region can earn.

This award is judged by reviewing each unit’s community service, extracurricular activities, standardized test scores, grade point averages and inspections. Allen passed its most recent regional inspection after failing the year before.

The regional supervisor also chose Allen as the region’s most improved unit because of the “significant shift” in the program’s culture, Kruppa said.

“We’re just using that as a stepping stone for the years to come,” Kruppa said, adding he’s hoping to have 100 cadets join the program in the fall.

Oscar Morales, an upcoming senior and NJROTC operations officer, said some students are intimidated by JROTC — a national high school leadership program sponsored by branches of the U.S. military — which can be a barrier to recruitment.

“They hear ‘the military’ and they hear, ‘Oh, they’re probably going to make me join or actually sign up,’” Morales said. “But that’s not what the program is about. It’s more of a learning experience, to learn our core values of honor, courage and commitment.”

Kruppa said there’s a misconception that JROTC is a military recruitment program, but it’s really focused on leadership and good citizenship, he said, adding he shares his background with students contemplating a career in the military.

Jayden Peralta, an upcoming senior cadet, said his favorite part of NJROTC is developing leadership skills by “learning how to listen to your people, learning how to adapt, learning how to take action depending on the situation that’s going on.”

Allison Morales, an upcoming senior and cadet commander, said the program is welcoming, and “it helps you educationally, and it gives you many chances.”

For many cadets, the draw of the program is developing a sense of community.

“We’re like a very close family,” Peralta said. “It just makes things 10 times better.”

Villanueva said he’s glad that he got to experience the new and improved version of NJROTC before graduating, and he’s excited to see how the program continues to grow in coming years under Kruppa and Mahala’s continued leadership.

“I’m confident that the program’s going to be amazing,” Villanueva said. “They still have plenty of goals and other things they want to do next year and years later, and they’re even telling us seniors graduating that we’re going to come back and it’s still going to be different.


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