In Chicago, some black and Latino students are automatically enrolled in classes taught by the military

Trevor Reed did not choose to enroll in the new military science class at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep, located south of Chicago. However, it ended up in her.

Like him, every year hundreds of other students from Chicago, King School, and at least nine other predominantly Black and Latino high schools are automatically enrolled in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC). in English), a class designed in part to recruit students into the military, data and interviews show. That practice is being investigated by the school district’s inspector general.

To cite one example, last fall all 110 students in King’s freshman class ended up enrolled in JROTC, whether they wanted to or not.

Information obtained from the district shows a clear pattern: Automatic enrollment occurs in the smaller high schools located in the south and west of the city that serve a largely low-income student body. The largest high schools located in the north, where more students are white, have significantly lower percentages of freshmen enrolled in the program.

The debate over the benefits and risks of JROTC programs is not new, but the practice of automatically enrolling students in some Chicago schools has brought the program under scrutiny, prompting some parents and educators to call for changes. in the way students are being enrolled.

The pushback comes amid a nationwide racial reckoning that has brought to light how black communities are watched and watched and how students of color are treated. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system is committed to addressing racial disparities by providing access to career and college readiness programs that are lacking in underfunded schools and where the programs of the JROTC usually fill that gap.

Within CPS, 94% of JROTC students are Black or Latino; Those students represent 83% of total enrollment, according to CPS data. Nationally, more than half of the approximately 550,000 JROTC students are students of color.

“He never signed up for the show,” said Tineeka Reed, Trevor Reed’s mother. “That they admit to those classes children who do not want to take them, worries me. Schools are supposed to be student-centered. Why don’t we listen to the students?

Default enrollment, select schools only

The practice of automatically enrolling students in the JROTC has been raised multiple times with district leaders, who have not yet stopped the practice, according to copies of district emails and interviews with students, teachers, parents and School Board members Local.

JROTC is a daily class on military science, leadership development and citizenship that seeks to “create favorable attitudes and impressions” toward the armed services and military careers, in part, by introducing military recruiters for regular visits. The program is popular with students and promoted as a means of building confidence and teaching valuable leadership skills.

But it has also been widely criticized for targeting under-resourced schools with sizable enrollment of Black and Latino students, and for directing teens toward military careers, distancing them from other educational or job opportunities.

James Gherardi, a CPS spokesman, said in an email that the program is “voluntary,” but acknowledged that default enrollment was given in some schools.

“JROTC is a voluntary CPS program open to students in many high schools throughout the district,” he said. “The district is aware that some schools have enrolled students in the JROTC as a default course and that those students have the ability to choose not to participate in the program.”

In an interview, retired Col. Daniel L. Baggio, who is the head of the CPS JROTC Leadership Department, said that the JROTC enrollment procedures are decided individually by the schools. Parents are asked to sign a statement giving permission for their students to participate.

“Parents are informed from the beginning,” added Baggio. But he emphasized: “I am not in all classrooms.”

However, King’s mother Reed said she did not receive a permission form for her son, who was 17 when the JROTC class began.

After Chalkbeat questioned JROTC automatic enrollment last April, the CPS Office of the Inspector General opened an investigation into the practice.

“The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has initiated a review of the JROTC enrollment procedures to ensure CPS compliance with all relevant authorities and that students and families have easy access to information about what your options are, ”CPS inspector general Will Fletcher said in a statement.

A common practice in small high schools

Even though enrollment has declined in recent years, CPS still claims to have the largest JROTC program in the country, with more than 7,800 students enrolled this year at 44 schools, making it a source of pride for the district and for the mayor Lori Lightfoot. Most programs are affiliated with the Army, although a few high schools have programs from the Navy, Air Force, or Navy.

Chicago students are much more likely to be enrolled in the JROTC – whether voluntarily or otherwise – than those elsewhere in Illinois. CPS students represent nearly three in five of JROTC participants in the state, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

JROTC enrollment data provided by CPS shows that all or large numbers of freshmen are enrolled in the program at seven small, predominantly black high schools located in the south and west of the city – Bowen, Fenger, Harlan, Julian, King, Manley, and Michele Clark – along with Kelvyn Park, Gage Park, and Spry Community Links, three schools where the majority of students are Latino.

Most schools have other factors in common: graduation rates below the district average and patterns of declining enrollment. Because schools tend to have fewer students, they are unable to offer as many elective and extracurricular programs as larger schools do. That leaves the JROTC, which is funded by the Army, a compelling option and in some cases, a replacement for traditional classes like physical education.

Natasha Erskine, a former CPS JROTC class participant and veteran of the U.S. Air Force and turned antiwar activist, said the concentration of JROTC programs in predominantly Black and Latino schools raises concerns. similar as are the excess of police presence in schools with students of color, an issue that last year was the object of new scrutiny.

After some CPS schools voted to remove police officers from campuses last year, schools are exploring alternatives to the option of having members of the police in their buildings, this as part of a district-wide review of school safety plans. There has been no formal effort to eliminate or reduce the JROTC.

In fact, some school leaders, such as the principal of King College Prep, are embracing the program.

The debate on a campus

At King, after the Chicago Board of Education voted in June to approve a new Army JROTC program, all freshmen at South High School were automatically enrolled, according to King’s teachers and members of the LSC. More than 95% of King’s students are black.

“They didn’t select the show,” said a King teacher who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “They were involuntarily left on the program.”

Brian Kelly, principal at King High School said that approximately 100 freshmen from a class of 110 remain enrolled in the JROTC, which until recently was taught online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He stressed that students who do not want to participate can be removed from class and recalled that 8 out of 10 chose not to participate.

But King’s teacher said “a lot of parents didn’t know they could do it.”

Baggio, the JROTC director at CPS, added that his department does not keep track of the number of students who choose not to participate in the program. Principals at the other nine schools where all or large numbers of freshmen are enrolled in the JROTC either sent questions to CPS spokespersons or did not respond to emails or phone messages.

Kelly, an advocate for the program, said the program helps students develop organizational skills and be responsible. He noted that the program will also help King attract more students after years of declining enrollment.

“It’s about providing different opportunities for students to prepare them for success after high school,” said the principal.

JROTC programs can also be attractive to school leaders, in part because instructors’ salaries are subsidized by the military. Because JROTC classes count as PE credits, principals can cut one or more PE teacher posts and use the money saved elsewhere. Students who are not enrolled in physical education enroll in JROTC or other alternative classes, if the schools offer them.

Last year, King had three physical education teachers working full time. This year, he only has one, according to CPS information and that obtained in interviews.

Wiley Johnson, King’s parent and chairman of his School Site Council, are elected government groups that advocate for spending and principal selection, said schools should not have to rely on JROTC programs to help balance their budgets.

“If you are 18 and want to join the military because you want to fight for your country or because you believe in the added benefits that come from being a veteran, I am for it,” Johnson said. “However, when we have 13 or 14 year olds being placed in JROTC classes and being groomed until they are 17 or 18 for a life in the Army, that seems really unfortunate to me.”

Before approving King’s JROTC program, Johnson noted that the district denied the school’s application for a pre-college science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program.

“[With that] they are saying that my son is not good enough to have a [pre-college] program at his school that could benefit him in the short and long term, but that it is okay to push him into the Army,” Johnson said. “As a parent, that really bothered me.”

King’s principal said he was not concerned that his students would be drafted into the military.

“It doesn’t seem like a concern to me,” Kelly said. “I am not trying to get more people to join the Army. I’m trying to prepare them for civic life. “

The drive to expand at the national level

Automatic or involuntary enrollment in the JROTC is not unique to Chicago, although it is unclear how widespread the practice is.

A spokesman for the US Army Cadet Command, which oversees the Army’s JROTC operation, said the department does not set enrollment policy for school districts and that JROTC programs are run exclusively by host schools and districts.

In 2005 and 2008, the Buffalo, New York, and San Diego school districts were targeted for automatically enrolling students in the JROTC. The Buffalo district violated a provision of New York state education law that requires written parental consent. Illinois appears to have no such requirement.

Seth Kershner, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the role of the military in public education, said that in the 1960s and 1970s high school students and others organized to cancel mandatory JROTC enrollment in cities like Atlanta, Memphis, New York and St. Louis.

More recently, schools that require participation in the JROTC have been less open about the practice, Kershner said.

Efforts are currently underway to promote JROTC enrollment throughout the country. A bill presented to the US Senate last year aims to double the number of JROTC programs, from 3,400 there are currently to about 6,000.

Two lawmakers supporting the effort, Congressman Mike Gallagher, representing Wisconsin, and Congressman Mikie Sherrill, representing New Jersey, said in an op-ed last year that doing so will “increase the opportunities for more Americans to serve their country. “, Especially in” disadvantaged rural and urban communities, where young people yearn for a future with purpose. “

Nationally, research shows that 40% of students who participate in the JROTC for three years enroll in a service academy, enroll in a college ROTC program, or enlist in the military. The Army found that high school students with JROTC programs are more than twice as likely to enlist after graduation.

The Army cites data showing that JROTC students nationwide outperform their peers in attendance, graduation and grade point average rates and are less likely to display “indiscipline.”

“We do a lot of good for these kids in Chicago,” said Baggio, a retired Army Colonel who heads the CPS JROTC department, citing data showing JROTC students completed 302,000 hours of community service during the 2018-19 school year. .

“We consider ourselves a beacon of light. We keep cadets off the street. They are doing healthy activities after school. We have introduced them to [subjects] like robotics and things related to STEM. These are skills that will guide you through your life. “

That vision of the program raises concern for critics like Erskine, who says the practice of forced enrollment leads to the assumption that black and Latino students “need discipline from the military.”

“That is also problematic,” Erskine noted.

Popular with students

Research is mixed as to whether and to what extent participation in the JROTC is linked to improving student outcomes. But despite complaints about the way some students are enrolled, JROTC has been popular with many Chicago students.

Brianna Gordon, a former JROTC student who said she chose to enroll in the Chicago Vocational High School program in Avalon Park, commented that it was an easy class that involved exercise challenges, training team competitions, and wearing military uniforms an once a week. The class also featured discussions on self-care, how to deal with PTSD, and other mental and behavioral problems.

Through JROTC, Gordon also marched in parades, attended banquets, and helped pack toiletries and food for the homeless.

“I had very, very bad behavior and with them, who were very understanding and strict, I learned to control my attitude,” said Gordon, who graduated in 2018.

Gordon’s former classmate Nakaya Timberlake also liked the show, which mimics a military hierarchy. Students start out as a “private cadet” and can advance to the highest rank of “cadet lieutenant colonel”.

Timberlake recalled that when she was promoted to a higher rank, she felt “on top of the world,” she said.

Amir Newell, a freshman at King, said he was first upset when he automatically enrolled in the JROTC. He really wanted to choose his own classes.

But the class was fine with him, he shared.

In recent weeks, students have studied personal finance, communication lessons, goal setting activities, and even archery.

Still Newell added: “I’d rather have physical education.”

This article was originally posted on In Chicago, some black and Latino students are automatically enrolled in classes taught by the military

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