Billings Public Schools is aiming to add a Marine Junior ROTC program to the three Billings high schools beginning in 2025.
The program would be offered to students just like a regular course, where in addition to learning math or English, they would learn about the military process and what that lifestyle looks like.
Currently, there are only four JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) programs around the state in Lodge Grass, East Helena, Great Falls and Lockwood. Senior student at Lockwood Norman Banderob said for him, the program has been life-changing.
"I didn't really have a goal in my life for after high school," Banderob said. "I took this course to see if it's something I'd be interested and now I kind of feel like I do. It changed me as a person and made me better."
Banderob said he now hopes to become a pilot, after experiencing a lot of that lifestyle through Lockwood's JROTC program, which is affiliated with the Air Force and has a flight simulator in the classroom. Not only has he flown the simulator, but the course has given him real flying experience and the right to fly a plane by himself in Choteau last year.
"I've changed mentally. I'm happier," Banderob said. "I've found things in life that I never thought I would've found and I can do things I never thought I could do."
Fellow Lockwood student Evan Lisczak echoed Banderob's appreciation of the program.
"I got interested in it because my dad was in the military," Olisczak said. "Before I took this class, I had a hard time being confident and standing presenting in front of groups. Now, I can do those things."
Olisczak said that the class is a nice introduction to what military life would look like and helps him test it out before committing to it on a more long-term basis after high school.
"It’s a program that gets you to dip your toes into the military," Olisczak said. "Not full-blown military but it’s still a program that you can kind of see like what they do."
Junior Laira Larson is another student enrolled in the JROTC program. She said the qualities she's learned have made a huge impact on her life.
"When I joined, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my future," Larson said. "I still don't know if I'll go the military route, but it's taught me so many things like leadership, community service and just community in general."
Those three students are among the 37 students in the program at Lockwood. Regardless of their reason behind taking the class, Larson said it helps them find the best path for their future.
“It’s not like if you join JROTC you have to join the military or you have to be thinking about joining the military," Larson said. "There are a million different paths you can take from this one jumping point and so I think it’s a really valuable thing to have in any school."
And it could be coming to high schools in Billings soon. School District 2 Secondary Education Director and former Lockwood Principal Gordon Klasna was a huge reason the program began there and he's now working on bringing a similar one here.
“Dr. Garcia has a strong focus on career readiness, and we’re just extending it to not just vocational schools or being ready for college, but let’s extend it to the military as well,” Klasna said.
Klasna said the program has proven to be very beneficial in Lockwood and would add to the student experience for those in Billings.
“I think the leadership and the discipline that come from these programs are really good for everyday life,” Klasna said. "Whether you follow the military path or you work in retail, the world needs better leaders."
Klasna said the program takes time to set up. Currently, their biggest block is finding space in one of Billings' packed high schools to offer the course.
"Our high schools are quite full," Klasna said. "We're trying to develop a plan and look at the different high schools to see where the best space would be for that."
Klasna said the program would come to one of the schools initially, with hopes of adding it to the other schools in the future. While the program would be hosted by one of the schools, Klasna said students from the other two schools would be allowed to join the program.
"We don't want it to be one of those things where it's like, 'Oh sorry, your school doesn't have that,'" Klasna said. "We want to provide the best experience we can for as many students as possible."
Ultimately, Klasna said the program hopes to reach out and provide something to a different population of students.
“A connected student graduates and that’s really our ultimate goal,” Klasna said. "Maybe these are students that wouldn't be in a club or on a sports team, but if they find this and can be passionate about this, then that can be really helpful in them graduating."