Elliott Colson Jr. admits he wasn't a model student last year.
Byron Elementary's Navy junior ROTC program has changed him and turned him into a man, the fifth-grader said. Now his grades are up, and he's a lieutenant and color guard member.
In early 2017, the Peach County school began offering the program for third- through fifth-graders. School and district leaders say it's the first elementary school in the state to offer junior ROTC.
Boatswain Mate Sheldone Almond, who's in charge of the school's in-school suspension, thought the new program would offer an incentive for students regularly sent for punishment to do better. Students want to wear the uniform, and they have to be in good standing with their grades and behavior to be in junior ROTC.
"(Almond) knew that this could be a great way for our kids to develop leadership skills and to build capacity within themselves to be successful," Byron Elementary principal Keith Lauritsen said. "I think it's given a lot of students pride in themselves and in our school. I've seen that translate over into caring about themselves more, being more service-oriented, taking pride in doing things for others."
Sixty-two students are in the program, and 70 others want to join. The cadets do drill practices twice a week during their physical education block, wear uniforms each Thursday, and raise and lower the American flag daily.
Almond teaches them special maneuvers, and they study the chain of command and patriotism. The cadets have attended a three-day camp, marched in parades, presented colors at basketball games, and done community service as well.
The cadets performed for state school Superintendent Richard Woods in October, and the next goal is to present colors at a state Board of Education meeting, Almond said. He hopes to be able to order additional uniforms next year so more students can participate in the program, and he'd like to see it expand to the district's other elementary schools and middle school. Peach County High School has Navy junior ROTC.
Children need structure and discipline, Almond said, and other countries instill those values earlier in students. He'd like to see that be a focus for American children at younger ages too. Junior ROTC builds confidence, personal responsibility and leadership skills in students and helps them "come out of their shell," he said.
Capt. Milah Helms, a fifth-grader and member of the color guard, used to be shy, but she opened up with junior ROTC, Almond said. Helms said Almond makes it fun to be a part of the program, and she loves calling commands to her peers. Lt. Kimaya Lumpkin, also in the fifth grade, said the program has helped her bring her grades up and become a better person. She enjoys going to the classes, learning new things and being a role model for other students by wearing her uniform.
"A lot of them, they have great admiration for military," said Wanda Stewart, the Peach district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "Just to be able to start it at this early age, participating in something that really hasn't been open to elementary schools, I think that's exciting."
Teaching younger students about junior ROTC takes a lot of patience and consistency and an understanding of their need to "wiggle," Almond said. But, they're getting the basics down little by little. Almond is "like a rock star" at Bryon Elementary, and the students love him, Lauritsen said.
"Being ex-military, (this program) is the light of my life," Almond said. "The kids have really taken advantage of the whole situation as far as being leaders. .... The kids are working very hard at being the very best JROTC cadets they can be."