February 5, 2023

In Chicago, concerns from activists, news coverage and an inspector general’s report led the school district to revert this year to automatic enrollment in programs at several high schools that primarily serve lower-income neighborhoods on the south and west sides of the city. In other places, the Time found, the practice continues, with students and parents sometimes being turned away if they fight mandatory enrollment.

The classes, which provide instruction in a wide variety of topics, including leadership, civic values, gun control and financial literacy, have provided the military with a valuable way to interact with teenagers at a time when it faces its greatest recruiting challenge since the end of the the Vietnam War.

Uniforms for the JROTC program at South Atlanta High School in AtlantaCredit:Zack Wittman/The New York Times

While Pentagon officials have long insisted that the $400 million-a-year ($590 million) program is not a recruiting tool, they have spoken openly about expanding it. The Army says 44 percent of all soldiers who recently entered its ranks have come from a school that offered the program.

High school principals who have embraced the program say it motivates students who are struggling, teaches self-discipline to disruptive students, and gives those who may feel isolated a sense of camaraderie. It has found a welcome home in rural areas where the military has deep roots, as well as in urban centers where educators seek to divert students from drugs or violence and into what may be a promising career or scholarship for many.

And military officials point to research showing the students have better attendance and graduation rates and fewer discipline problems in school.

Angelina Mejia and her father Julio, who says his daughter tried to drop out of a mandatory JROTC class when she was a freshman and was initially denied.Credit:Zack Wittman/The New York Times

But critics have long argued that the program’s militaristic discipline emphasizes obedience over independence and critical thinking. The textbooks of the program, the Time found, falsify or sometimes play down the shortcomings of the US government. And the program’s heavy concentration in schools with low-income and non-white students, some opponents said, helps drive such students into the military rather than encouraging other routes to college or jobs in the civilian economy .

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“It’s hugely problematic,” says Jesús Palafox, who worked on the auto-enrollment campaign in Chicago. Now 33, he said he was concerned the program was “brainwashing” students after a JROTC instructor at his high school approached him and urged him to attend classes and enlist in the military.

“A lot of recruiting for these programs happens in heavy communities of color,” he said.

Schools also have a financial incentive to push students into the program. The military subsidizes instructor salaries, while schools must maintain a certain enrollment level to keep it going. In states that have allowed the training program to be used as an alternative graduation credit, some schools appear to have saved money by using the course as an alternative to hiring more teachers in subjects such as physical education or wellness.

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Commodore Nicole Schwegman, a Pentagon spokesman and a former JROTC student herself, said that while the program helped the armed forces by introducing teens to the prospect of military service, it operated under the educational arm of the military, not under the recruiting arm, and designed to help teens become more effective students and responsible adults.

“It’s really about teaching kids about service, teaching them about teamwork,” Schwegman said.

But she expressed concern about the Timeenrollment policy findings, which state that the military has not asked high schools to make the program mandatory and that schools should not require students to take it.

“Just as we are an army made up entirely of volunteers, this should be a volunteer program,” she said.

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The program has always had a strong presence in regions like Texas and the Southeast, where the military has deeper roots and military families often take pride across generations. But even there, data released in response to requests for federal, state and local public records showed that some schools had relatively small enrollments.

Hillsborough County, Florida, for example, has a strong commitment to JROTC, with a program in all of its high schools. But without an enrollment mandate, the district averaged about 8 percent of freshmen enrolled last year.

On the other hand, the Times’ review found a number of high schools where at least three-quarters of a class’s students were enrolled in JROTC, including in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Cape Coral, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; Port Gibson, Mississippi; San Diego; Spring, Texas; and Vincent, Alabama.

Many other schools have more than half of all students enrolled in the program in some classes, including some in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Miami, St. Louis, and Washington.

Analyzing data released by the military, the Times found that of the schools where at least three-quarters of freshmen were enrolled in JROTC, more than 80 percent of them had a student body composed primarily of black or Hispanic students. That was a higher percentage than other JROTC schools (more than 50 percent of them had such makeup) and US high schools without the programs (about 30 percent).

In some districts surveyed by the Times, it was difficult to determine whether a school was mandating JROTC or whether a large percentage of freshmen had enrolled in the program for some other reason.

In Detroit, the district said in a statement that administrators do not require students to take JROTC, though they do “encourage ninth grade students to take the course to pique their interest.” But two recent Pershing students, in addition to Thomas, said in interviews that they were required to take the class. District data showed that 90 percent of freshmen were enrolled in JROTC during the 2021-2022 school year.

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Three other Detroit high schools also have more than 75 percent of their freshmen enrolled in class, according to district data.

Schools that have had questions about mandatory or automatic enrollment have often responded by backing out of the requirements, as Chicago did last year.

In that case, which came to light after an article on the education news website chalk treeA survey by the school district’s inspector general found that nearly 100 percent of freshmen were enrolled in four high schools that primarily served low-income students on the south and west sides of the city.

It was “a clear sign that the program was not voluntary,” the report said.

In many schools, it said, freshman enrollment in JROTC “often worked like a pre-ticked box: students were automatically placed in JROTC and had to take themselves out if they didn’t want to. Sometimes it was possible; sometimes it wasn’t.”

In response, the district said it was updating its parental consent process and ensuring students had a choice between enrolling in JROTC or other non-military physical education classes.

In 2008, parents and other San Diego residents confronted school district officials about concerns about forced enrollment and won what they said was a pledge from the district to ensure the program would be strictly optional. They also worked to eliminate the course air rifle programs in the schools.

But the TimeA review of data provided by the school district found that there were still schools with high JROTC numbers, with 77 percent of freshmen enrolled in the program last year at the Kearny School of Biomedical Science and Technology. A spokesperson for the district said the data the district had provided contained “some inaccuracies” but said no new enrollment numbers had emerged in recent weeks and would not comment further.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.