Freshman enrollment in a controversial military-run training program plunged at some Chicago high schools this academic year, according to a report from the district’s watchdog released Thursday, as district leaders crack down on schools that effectively were forcing first year students to participate.

Chicago Public Schools vowed last spring To eliminate 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 was followed by 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 an alternative to gyms. in. Some principals told the OIG that they lack the money to hire enough physical education teachers to provide PE to all students.

The OIG investigation was prompted by a chalk test In 2021 it was discovered that hundreds of thousands of students at 10 predominantly black and Latino high schools were being enrolled in JROTC by default. The practice drew a backlash from some parents, who described it as a way to steer teenagers from under-resourced schools toward military careers and away from other opportunities.

In its annual report, the OIG found that freshman enrollment in JROTC had decreased “dramatically” at the 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 freshmen can decide between physical education or JROTC.

“Most chose Jim,” said the principal, who was not named by the OIG.

Another new CPS policy announced last school year requires that every high school offer physical education to all students. Five schools told the OIG that their JROTC enrollment declined after adding a physical education teacher or classroom.

The decline in enrollment is certainly a matter of concern for military leaders, especially the military. Fails to achieve recruiting goals, Although JROTC participants are not required to serve, the military relies on the program to introduce service careers to approximately 550,000 students nationwide each year. army found High school students with the Army JROTC program are twice as likely to be recruited after graduation.

In Chicago, written parental consent is now required before students can participate in JROTC.

“It’s helped,” said Willie Johnson, former president of the local school council at King College Prep, who used to enroll all the freshmen in JROTC. “It’s made a big difference.”

A new report from the OIG shows many schools have experienced a sharp drop in new student enrollment, falling from between 90% and 100% in 2020-21 to less than 20% this school year.

According to the OIG, a school that previously enrolled 95% of freshmen in JROTC registered only a slightly lower percentage this year. CPS told the OIG that it would investigate the status of the school, identified by WBEZ as Mitchell Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Austin.

Messages sent to Clarke’s principal were not immediately returned.

Alex Rupenthal is a freelance reporter based in Chicago.

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