By Jodi Witt
USAREC Public Affairs
April 17, 2017
FORT KNOX, Ky. - Nearly 18 months ago, a leader and his team of dedicated recruiters set out to change public perception while bridging relationships between the U.S. Army and high schools throughout New Jersey.
Shortly after taking command, Lt. Col. Edward Croot, Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion commander, noticed recruiters were restricted from speaking to high school students. This fact even hit close to home when Croot learned he was intentionally left off the invitation list for career day at the high school from which he graduated years ago.
"One of the chief recruiting complaints was that (recruiters) had no, or very limited, access to high schools," Croot said.
After about a year of work to establish quality access to schools in New Jersey, Military Opportunities Day was born. Since its establishment, Croot and his team have had a captive audience for a 45-minute presentation at more than 150 schools before the end of the school year. Typically about 10 percent of the audience asks for more information immediately following the presentation, and another 10 percent call or visit a center for more information within one to three months afterwards, Croot said.
The Military Opportunities Day initiative began as an attempt to provide recruiters the opportunity to speak to high school students but soon turned into a more inclusive program supporting recruiting efforts sponsored by all military services.
About 50 percent of young people in America admit to knowing very little to nothing about the U.S. military. Croot set out to change that statistic by offering to educate youth and allow them to make an informed decision about their future.
"We needed to find a transparent, professional, legal and compelling way to ensure our recruiters had authentic access to all juniors and seniors across the state, at least one time a year," Croot said.
Croot addressed the Red Tape Review Commission requesting support for the initiative Dec. 16, 2015. The commission agreed to support the proposed legislation establishing the Military Opportunities Day program.
"Following the initial encounter between (the) lieutenant governor and the battalion commander, both teams have worked closely by sharing common goals and long-term outcomes," said Giovanna Hansen, the battalion's education services specialist. "We were asked to reach out to the other branches of service for a fair representation of all military opportunities."
Soon after the board reached its decision to support the program, the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno's staff began drafting the proposed legislation for the program scheduled to begin in fall 2016.
"The state proclamation, along with the support letter signed by the presidents of major educational organizations, represented the legitimization of our recruiting efforts," Hansen said.
Not only did legislation provide the program the support it needed for implementation, but in January 2016, the program's initiative progressed even further when an Army recruiter partnered with John Henry, New Jersey School Board Association specialist at the NJSBA headquarters as a Science Technology Engineer Arts Mathematics fellow.
"Having a permanent presence inside the NJSBA made all the difference in the world," Croot said. "He provided us access to all education departments across the state, legitimized us in the education network through his iSTEAM programs, and provided critical access to country school board and superintendent monthly roundtable; these venues served as our gateway into the schools."
During the initial stages of the STEAM fellow program, Sgt. 1st Class George Johnson, U.S. Army iSTEAM specialist for the New Jersey School Boards Association, served as a liaison between the Army and the NJSBA. He aligned STEM resources, such as subject matter experts, assets and free programs while mentoring student's leadership and tactical skills.
"Students need an education with a solid foundation in STEAM areas so they are prepared to prosper in the 21st century," Johnson said.
Once the battalion had personnel actively working alongside members of the school board, it began working with the educators attending the battalion's educator tour in spring 2016.
"With the MOD initiative in mind, the battalion commander and I aimed at making the battalion educator tour (March 2016) the perfect platform to share the concept, strategy and execution plan," Hansen said.
The tour set the tone for this initiative by showcasing what the U.S. Army offered and provided the platform for educators to appreciate, understand and see how the U.S. Army operates, Croot said. He also described how one educator pulled him aside and thanked him for the experience.
The pivotal point for this initiative took place on Sept. 7, 2016, when Guadagno presented the New Jersey Proclamation of Military Opportunities Day expressing full support for recruiting efforts in the state for all branches of service.
"It is in no way a directive measure but an endorsement to encourage school administrators, educators and parents to let young men and women be informed of what the military has to offer in terms of strategies to get into the right college or enter the desired career field," Hansen said.
Even though the proclamation was signed, there was still work to do to ensure the information about the armed forces reached local schools and students. Since then, Croot and his team have actively engaged schools and presented this initiative to educators and administrators.
"The proclamation has undoubtedly made the journey easier; however, the battalion commander and the entire team continue to challenge the education community and consistently change educators and parents" long-standing paradigms about military opportunities," Hansen said.
Currently, the battalion team is working to expand Military Opportunities Day to schools in Pennsylvania to give their students the chance to learn about the careers and educational programs the different military services provide.
"I know that there are 30-40 young men and women in every high school, just like me, that will benefit greatly from understand the opportunities of military service available to them," Croot said. "But I also know that every students and parent needs to hear the message about the contemporary college and workforce environment."
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