Smaller high schools in low-income communities of color often struggle to offer students a robust curriculum with a variety of course offerings.
These schools just don’t have the money, and so teens miss out on arts, foreign language and other courses, including physical education — even though the state requires daily phys ed classes.
Military-style Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps classes are considered a substitute for gym class. That’s partly why hundreds of high school students in some Chicago Public Schools found themselves automatically enrolled in JROTC even when they didn’t want to be, as the CPS Office of the Inspector General found recently.
In fact, for two years in a row at four high schools, 100% of freshmen were automatically enrolled in JROTC. No wonder Chicago has been a national leader in JROTC participation.
To be clear, we see nothing inherently wrong with military-style classes or JROTC. As some principals pointed out to the OIG, which released its findings on the matter this week, JROTC teaches leadership skills, offers field trips and provides scholarship opportunities.
That’s a potentially good deal — if a student and family want it, which is why the JROTC program is supposed to be voluntary. Students shouldn’t be forcibly signed up, and if a mistake is made, they should be able to easily unenroll without hassle — which wasn’t always the case.
The OIG listed 10 recommendations to fix the problem, which CPS, to its credit, has agreed to implement.
The OIG’s investigation was prompted by a June 2021 story, published by the education news outlet Chalkbeat Chicago, that first reported that high school freshmen from at least 10 schools were automatically enrolled in JROTC.
Compounding the problem was the fact that the forced enrollments happened only in South and West Side schools with Black and Latino students. That fact — no surprise — didn’t go over well with some parents and anti-military activists, who complained that students of color were being forced into the military and denied other options for college and career readiness.
For us, that’s the bigger takeaway from this story: Students deserve options, no matter which high school they attend.
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