Experts question new Chicago graduation requirements

Experts question new Chicago graduation requirements

(Ill.) A new plan to better prepare students in Chicago Public Schools for life after graduation has education experts concerned that the initiative, while well-meaning, may prove half-baked unless the district can provide support resources.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last week that beginning with the class of 2020, students would have to show an acceptance letter to a university, community college, apprenticeship, trade school, internship, official gap-year program or the armed services in order to receive their high school diploma. Students could also show that they are currently employed or have a job offer.

Although the mayor’s office and CPS administrators have called the requirement “groundbreaking,” advocates for at-risk youth and others have expressed concern that the district’s current lack of academic counselors could be setting students up to fail.

Researchers at Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research also questioned how the district expected to help children follow through. Up to 40 percent of seemingly college-intending students across the country, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, fail to enroll in college the fall after graduation even if they have been accepted–a phenomenon known as “summer melt.”

“The mayor needs to be sure adequate school-level supports are put into place before instituting a significant, untested policy that may penalize otherwise successful students,” said Miriam Greenberg, director of education and communications for the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

“Further, we know from the summer melt research that just because a qualified student has an acceptance letter in hand, it doesn’t mean that he or she will show up to college on day one,” she said in an interview “So how can schools support students in following through on their post-secondary commitments?”

Chicago Public Schools has experienced deep budget cuts in recent years that led to widespread teacher layoffs and the closing of almost 50 schools located primarily in low-income neighborhoods, prompting months of protests and school board hearings. The budget crisis has now pushed the district to consider ending the current school year three weeks early.

Recent attempts to boost funding for the district have failed. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill in December that would have provided $215 million in funding for schools in Chicago, and has said he won’t give CPS a “bailout.” In response, three-time Grammy winner and Chicago-based independent artist Chance The Rapper met with the governor to discuss ways to help the struggling district, ultimately announcing in March that he would donate $1 million to the schools himself.

More than 80 percent of the district’s students live in households classified as economically-disadvantaged–which is unsurprising, as a 2014 study from the Brookings Institute ranked Chicago as eighth in highest income inequality amongst 50 cities in the United States.

Pending approval by the Chicago Board of Education, CPS would become the first large urban district in the country to require students to have a post-secondary plan in hand in order to receive a diploma. According to the mayor, the plan is intended to get students thinking about their futures, because the current job market requires at least some post-secondary education or job training.

“High school graduation is a milestone, not a destination,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Ensuring every student has a plan for success after high school is the right thing to do for our students’ futures, and the right thing to do for Chicago’s future.”

The initiative, “Learn. Plan. Succeed.,” is part of a push since Emanuel took office to improve post-secondary preparation. Last year, the mayor’s office announced his goal of ensuring that 50 percent of CPS students finish high school with at least one college or career credential so that they are a step ahead upon graduation.

District officials say the new plan will motivate students to graduate high school if they have a concrete plan for their future afterward. At just over 50 percent, the district’s graduation rate currently falls far below the national average of 82 percent.

“Learn. Plan. Succeed. is the next step in our overarching mission of preparing students for a rewarding and impactful life,” Janice Jackson, the district’s chief education officer, said in a statement. “We all need to change how we think about what it means to be a high school graduate–a diploma alone isn’t enough anymore.”

The district has also worked out partnerships with local colleges and universities in an effort to increasing the college graduation rate of CPS students to 60 percent by 2025. One of those agreements guarantees admittance into the City Colleges of Chicago community college system for students who earn a diploma from CPS.

When the partnership was announced in 2013, CPS began training staff to obtain the Chicago College Advising Credential, so that every high school would have a certified counselor to support students in developing post-secondary plans.

Only 40 percent of school counselors have obtained this certification and as part of this initiative, but Emanuel and CPS administrators have said they are hoping to raise $1 million in funding from local philanthropic and business communities to accelerate the training.

Still, while many have expressed that they agree with the goal of wanting students to plan their future after high school, they disagree with the idea of withholding a diploma if a student fails to prove that they have done so–especially when students still don’t have access to all of the resources that could help them with the planning process.

“We’re very concerned that a system like CPS, which often deprives students of adequate college or job counseling during high school, is in a position to put this kind of burden on their future,” said Edwin Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois. “And of course we’re also concerned that students of color and those from families with limited resources often need that diploma just to find their first job.”

The Chicago Board of Education will consider the new initiative at an upcoming meeting, according to the mayor’s office.