But after working his way up to be the highest-ranking cadet in a 333-member regiment, he has achieved a sense of accomplishment many 17-year-olds never get to experience. It has taught him how to mentor other students, teach classes and stay focused on going to college.
“If it wasn’t for ROTC, I wouldn’t be a leader at all,” said Johnson, now a senior. “I mean, having 333 kids that know me by name? That’s awesome.”
As a way to instill leadership and discipline in more students through Junior ROTC, Cross Creek was approved by the Richmond County Board of Education on Tuesday to turn the program into the Cross Creek Academy of Military Science, a partial magnet program inside the school, which will add leadership and service components to the normal Richmond County school curriculum.
Having the magnet component will allow Cross Creek to offer the academy to students in all the district’s attendance zones once the school is able to build more classrooms to accommodate more students.
The development of the academy is part of the system’s mission to increase magnet programs in schools, which was pitched by Superintendent Frank Roberson last year.
As one of the 10 largest regiments in the country, Cross Creek Navy Junior ROTC has been aiming to teach work ethic and responsibility to as many young lives as possible - whether they’re military-bound or not. Despite its intentions, the combination of the growing popularity and a lack of classroom space has caused Cmdr. Johnathan Shaw, who has led the school’s program since 2006, to turn students away over the years.
“I can’t even keep my office clean because I have boxes stacked up, papers, everything is all crammed together,” said Shaw, who has had to turn away 100 students so far this year.
The switch to the academy is immediate, but nothing will really change other than the name and the mindset, said Principal Jason Moore.
Admitting more students will require more space, and Cross Creek is depending on voters to approve the upcoming Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to fund a new Junior ROTC wing for the academy.
In the SPLOST proposal, $1.65 million out of the $2 million budgeted for Cross Creek will go to the new wing for four classrooms, a rifle range, storage space and a second gym.
Until the new wing is built, Moore said the academy will be open to students zoned for Cross Creek and will then open up to the rest of the district.
As a magnet program, students from throughout the county will eventually be able to apply for the academy and can remain in the program by meeting certain requirements.
The military science students will go to math, science and all other core classes with other Cross Creek students, but will have a special focus for their Junior ROTC track.
Moore said the idea for the academy started a year ago, when he began collaborating with Roberson about how to expand one of Cross Creek’s most successful programs.
“Kids that are involved in that program graduate and go on to do some good stuff,” Moore said. “I find something like that, I’m going to go run with it.”
The next step to grow the academy will be figuring out the application criteria, retention requirements and curriculum. With the proper facilities, Shaw said he hopes the program will eventually enroll 500 or more students with six instructors.
Magnet programs are meant to give students more options in their learning and provide a special track of interest to prepare for life after high school.
In November, Roberson said he’d like to see the number of students enrolled in magnet programs in district schools increase from 2,112 to more than 10,000 within the next five years.
“It’s so students would come away from it with specific skills and interests that can transfer over into a career path,” Roberson said in a phone interview Tuesday.
While still on medical leave from a health condition, he said the development of the military academy is a step toward opening the door for more magnets in Richmond County schools.
“Meeting the needs and the intentions of students to keep them highly engaged in the educational process -- that’s huge,” Roberson said.
But the focus of Cross Creek’s academy is something the district hasn’t seen yet, said school board member Jimmy Atkins.
With John S. Davidson Fine Arts and A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering magnet schools, and the academic magnet programs within several other schools, the district was missing a military-based component.
“Not every student may be into in fine arts, not every student may be into health and science, so let’s look at what else is out there,” Atkins said.
And to Shaw, the commander of Cross Creek’s Junior ROTC, having a discipline- and leadership-based structure in school funnels directly into academics.
The students in the program have had a 100 percent graduation rate for the last five years, and 60 percent of those go on to college, Shaw said.
“We focus them on academics,” he said. “If we find that a student is failing in science class or math class, we’ll pull them out of our (Junior ROTC) curriculum and put them in peer tutoring.”
In trying to reach more young people with the academy, Shaw said that outreach is to expand students’ lives as well. In Junior ROTC, students who may never have been out of Augusta get to travel to more than 50 competitions a year and up to 10 field trips.
Although he will graduate before the academy gets started, Johnson, the unit’s highest-ranking cadet, said he is giving input to administrators for what students like him would want out of the academy.
Johnson, who hopes to attend the University of South Carolina next year to study broadcast journalism, said that while students enjoy the military structure of Junior ROTC, they don’t necessarily participate to become a future soldier or seaman.
“People don’t join because they want to join the military, they join because they belong here. They have a sense of belonging, and they feel that.”