Being the best in the nation just isn’t enough for a group of Centennial High School students.

Kerri Englert, 17, battalion commander for the school’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, says her group needs more rigor, more discipline, more homework and more drills.

“We’re going to convert back to our old way of doing things,” she said. “It’s rewarding when you earn something, and we have worked very hard to be where we are, but we’d like to maintain that position.”

Centennial’s 6-year-old program was named most outstanding in the nation by the Navy League in June after excelling in academics, drill, physical fitness, school leadership and community service. It is the second school ever to be unanimously nominated for the award.

The school’s 225-cadet unit competed for the honor against 625 other Junior ROTC units worldwide.

Attitudes such as Englert’s demonstrate the students’ ownership of the program, their teacher, Capt. Edward Hardeman, said. He is one of many retired Navy, Marine and Coast Guard officers and enlisted personnel commissioned to teach the high school class.

Centennial Junior ROTC students are also taught by Senior Chief Tom Borders and Petty Officer Gail Johnson.

During the team’s annual military inspection, a Navy captain came to the school and examined every student individually. The students were interrogated on everything from their uniform, to on-the-spot knowledge of military protocol, current events and leadership strategies.

“One of the reasons they were selected is because they demonstrated how they try to take care of each other. It’s not an I’m-better-than-you mentality,” said Hardeman, who boasts 33 years of active military service and was a commanding officer during the Gulf War.

The group developed its own mentoring program where upper-class students pair with freshmen to help them adjust.

The unit also hosts an academic tutoring program.

Ninety-two cadets were on the honor role last semester, and the unit increased the number of students with a 3.0 grade-point average or higher.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we work together as an entire unit,” Englert said. “It’s amazing. It’s like our own little community within the school.”

While uniforms and shined shoes make cadets stand out from other Centennial students, their ability to incorporate the rest of the school community in projects makes them much more than just another after-school organization, said Christina Danai, who was the unit’s battalion commander when it was evaluated for the award.

With members involved in student council, the National Honor Society, athletic teams, band, chorus and drama groups, the program is an integral part of the school. The cadets’ diversity earns them respect, she said.

Before the inspection, numerous signs were posted around campus wishing the unit luck and welcoming the inspector. Much to the inspector’s surprise, students not involved with Junior ROTC put up the signs.

“There’s bits and pieces from every subculture the high school has. No two people are the same, but at the same time everyone can identify with each other in some way,” said Danai, 17.

Danai, who graduated from Centennial in the spring, will attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis in the fall. She said Junior ROTC was the catalyst for her future career with the Navy.

“I’m just motivated to serve my country, to accomplish great things and to have some honor to my name,” she said. “I definitely want to appreciate the value of family and friendship and to keep myself healthy and in shape.”

Out of Centennial’s 21 senior cadets in 2007, 20 students graduated this year, six entered the military and 10 will enter college in the fall.

Most of the program’s graduates who chose to join the military either enlist right after high school or join ROTC programs at universities. Several of the program’s alumni are serving in the Gulf. Two Centennial Junior ROTC graduates serve on the presidential security force. And one is attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

When speaking to the cadets, Hardeman likens life to a party, saying the best parties have rules. He wants his students to take the same sort of ownership they have for the program and apply it to their own future.

That includes their happiness, he said. He uses games and exercises to illustrate this point.

For example, press the “Fun Button,” a foam smiley face attached to the wall near the doorway of the Junior ROTC room, and nothing happens. It doesn’t seem very “fun.”

However, Hardeman insists, that the button is fun as long as whoever presses it makes it that way. Just like life, you make it what you want it to be, he said.

“The students understand that the only person stopping them from obtaining their goal is themselves.”

Centennial Junior ROTC cadets organize all their after-school activities, community service and fundraising. They contributed nearly 4,000 hours of community service last year.

“We just have great leadership at every grade level,” said Danai. “JROTC isn’t just a school club, or after-school activity. It’s a lifestyle. It gives you a sense of pride in yourself. You find yourself honored to be part of something great.”

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