Jan 5, 2023 / Alex Ruppenthal / Chicago Sun Times - Freshman enrollment in a controversial military-run training program plummeted this academic year at some Chicago high schools after district leaders cracked down on schools that were effectively forcing first-year students to participate, according to a report from the district’s watchdog released Thursday.
Chicago Public Schools pledged last spring to end automatic enrollment in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, a daily class on military science and leadership taught by retired military officers.
The move followed an investigation by the district’s Office of Inspector General, which found that nearly all freshmen at some South and West Side schools were placed in the program “without any choice in the matter,” often as a substitute for gym. Some principals told the OIG they lacked the money to hire enough physical education teachers to offer PE to all students.
The OIG probe was prompted by a Chalkbeat investigation in 2021 that revealed that hundreds of students at 10 predominantly Black and Latino high schools were being enrolled in JROTC by default. The practice drew backlash from some parents who described it as a way of shepherding teens from under-resourced schools toward military careers and away from other opportunities.
In its annual report, the OIG found freshman enrollment in JROTC had decreased “dramatically” at eight schools where automatic freshman enrollment was most widespread. Enrollment fell from 639 to 211 between the 2020-21 school year and the current school year.
One principal said this is the first year in which freshmen can decide between physical education or JROTC.
“The majority chose gym,” said the principal, whom the OIG did not name.
Another new CPS policy announced last school year requires every high school to offer physical education to all students. Five schools told the OIG their JROTC enrollment declined after they added a physical education teacher or class.
Decreasing enrollment is certain to worry military leaders, especially as the Army fails to hit recruitment goals. Although JROTC participants are not required to serve, the military relies on the program to introduce service careers to roughly 550,000 students nationwide each year. The Army found that students at high schools with Army JROTC programs are more than twice as likely to enlist after graduation.
In Chicago, parental written consent is now required before students can participate in JROTC.
“That has helped,” said Wiley Johnson, former chair of the local school council at King College Prep, which used to enroll all freshmen in JROTC. “It has made a huge difference.”
The OIG’s new report shows the decline in freshman enrollment has been steep at several schools, dropping from between 90% and 100% in 2020-21 to less than 20% this school year.
One school that previously enrolled 95% of freshmen in JROTC enrolled only a slightly lower percentage this year, according to the OIG. CPS told the OIG it would investigate the situation at the school, identified by WBEZ as Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Austin.
Messages to Clark’s principal were not immediately returned.