Willis Guides JPS Cadets to Success
Retired U.S. Army Col. Paul Willis (standing) addresses cadets preparing to compete in the 2019 Jackson Public Schools (JPS) Cadet of the Year Competition. Pictured (from left) are 1st Sgt. Shone Bounds, JPS’ JROTC operations officer, and Cadet Jeremiah Meeks, who was a junior at Callaway High School in 2019. Meeks is now a freshman enrolled at Jackson State University.
Willis (standing, right) addresses cadets preparing to compete in the 2020 JPS Cadet of the Year Competition. Pictured (from left, facing the camera) are Cadet Tyra Patterson, a Jim Hill High School senior; Cadet Christopher Washington, a Lanier High School senior; and Bounds.
Willis presents a 2019 Drill Team Competition Award to Cadet Micha Lee, who was a junior at Forest Hill High School at the time. Lee graduated from Forest Hill in 2020 and is now serving on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps.
In the last decade, almost all Jackson Public School (JPS) students who participated in the district’s Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (JROTC) program graduated, and many went on to attend institutions of higher learning.
These graduates consider retired U.S. Army Col. Paul Willis the driving force behind their success.
Willis, an Edwards native and Alcorn State University graduate, came to Jackson with an impressive military career under his belt after serving 25 years on active duty as a transportation corps officer. His service took him to various places throughout America and Germany, but a teaching assignment at Chicago State University sowed the seeds for what would become his post-Army career.
“I absolutely loved that experience. I said if I ever had a chance to go back and do teaching at the college or high school level, I would certainly take advantage of it,” he said.
His chance came 17 years ago, and he retired from the Army to join JPS as the director of Army instruction. Willis oversees JPS’ seven JROTC units, which see an average combined enrollment of about 1,800 cadets yearly.
“If They Can See It, They Can Be It”
When Willis joined JPS, he felt the JROTC curriculum, which focuses on leadership and character development, was tremendous, but he believed more experiences outside the classroom would benefit the cadets.
“It sounds like a trite statement, but it’s so true: If the students can see it, they can be it.”
While Willis visited the campus of Mississippi State University (MSU), a happenstance meeting led to the creation of some of these opportunities. As they passed each other on the campus grounds, then-university President Robert Foglesong struck up a conversation with Willis and expressed interest in having JPS students visit the campus.
That summer, a group of JPS cadets participated in Young Guns, a weeklong leadership development program for incoming high school seniors, at MSU. Later, when Young Guns faced elimination, Willis worked with MSU to revamp it with a STEM focus and secure more funding from the Army.
The program, now known as leaderSTATE Leadership Development Camp, has grown from a single, one-week event for 60 JPS students to six sessions that serve 360 students each summer from Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
After the success of leaderSTATE, Willis helped establish similar programs at William Carey University, Jackson State University (JSU) and the University of Southern Mississippi.
These accomplished programs caught the attention of universities outside of the state and were replicated.
“People from Florida, California, Georgia and Alabama — they all started coming to Mississippi State to look at our program,” he said. “They took the blueprint that was developed at Mississippi State.”
Turning Resources Into Opportunities
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Edwin Butler, who is the current JROTC bureau director at the Mississippi Department of Education, said exposure is an important component of JPS cadets’ success. Willis, he said, has a talent for gathering the resources needed to find and create these opportunities.
“Col. Willis is good at building partnerships, creating a vision, having folks understand the importance of what he’s trying to do and having them buy into that,” Butler said. “He has a huge network of people that help and support him.”
For example, Willis secured funding from 100 Black Men of Jackson to send students to the National Flight Academy in Pensacola, Florida, for what Willis described as “a premiere aviation STEM experience.”
“Those experiences with aviation have really heightened interest among our students. Right now, we’re on the verge of establishing an aviation academy within [JPS] for those students who specifically want to pursue a career in aviation,” Willis said.
Delta State University, the only four-year college in Mississippi with an aviation program, is supporting the school district’s effort to develop the academy.
JROTC is commonly thought of as a recruitment tool for the armed forces — a misconception identified by both Willis and Butler. While any cadet who aspires to a future in the military is supported, Willis believes higher education — traditional universities, trade schools and everything in between — is a crucial part of most cadets’ journeys to success. He works with his instructors to make sure all seniors have time set aside for applying to institutions of higher learning.
Encouragement is Contagious
U.S. Army Reserve 1st Lt. Agodtis McClendon, a former JROTC cadet and graduate of Murrah High School, said Willis provided a pivotal moment of encouragement during his college selection process.
Willis suggested McClendon consider Marion Military Institute, a competitive two-year college in Marion, Alabama. McClendon, expecting to continue his ROTC experience at a more accessible public college in his home state, had not considered Marion a possibility, but Willis’ confidence in him led him to learn more about the institution.
After a rigorous application process, McClendon was accepted into Marion’s two-year early commissioning program, which allows students to expedite their college ROTC training and gain commission as a second lieutenant. He also received a scholarship and completed the program as command sergeant major of his battalion.
“[Willis] believed I could do something, and two years later, I did it,” McClendon said. “That, to me, just speaks volumes of the support the program has and the influence it can have on students.”
Willis continued to encourage McClendon throughout his college career and invited McClendon to speak to JPS cadets about his experiences. McClendon found encouraging others helped him to push through the hardest days of training and coursework.
McClendon continued his education at JSU and became a social studies teacher at JPS’ Blackburn Middle School. He remains involved with the local JROTC program by assisting with events and speaking to and mentoring cadets.
With Willis’ guidance of JPS’ JRTOC program, cadets are sure to find success during and after high school.