Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.
Student Tiandre Turner makes his way to class at Whitney Young High School in Chicago in September 2012. A new approach in Chicago requires high school seniors to demonstrate they have planned for their future before they are allowed to graduate. Options include: college, the military, apprenticeships, and gap years.
John Gress/Reuters/File
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Chicago to students: What are your plans after graduation? No, really.

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Starting with the class of 2020, graduating seniors at Chicago Public Schools will need a job offer, college acceptance, or other evidence of a postsecondary plan in order to receive their diploma.

As a guidance counselor at Chicago's Carl Schurz High School, Victor Ochoa wears many hats. 

Between sorting classes, tracking attendance, overseeing testing, and other assorted tasks, it can be difficult to find time to give each of the 400 students assigned to him the individual attention they deserve, Mr. Ochoa says. Now, as the city prepares to implement a controversial new graduation policy, he worries that some of his most vulnerable students may be even more likely to slip through the cracks. 

Starting in 2020, graduating seniors will need evidence of a postsecondary plan – whether a job offer or acceptance to college, the military, a trade apprenticeship, a job program, or a gap year program – in order to receive a diploma. The plan, the first of its kind in a large district, is being offered as a solution to low college enrollment and employment rates for recent graduates. By requiring each student to have a plan in place, city officials say, the policy will raise the standard for students who may not find such motivation outside of school.

But critics question whether Chicago Public Schools (CPS), a district afflicted with financial woes, has the resources to implement the new plan in a way that is truly beneficial. Ultimately, some argue, the requirements could end up being more harmful than helpful. 

"I’m afraid that on paper, CPS is going to look good," Ochoa says. "But in the trenches, we’re going to know that we could have done so much better."

A 'pre-K to college model' 

The new initiative, known as "Learn. Plan. Succeed," is part of a broader effort by the city to hold schools accountable for what students do post-graduation, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

"A K-12 model was relevant 10, 15, 20 years ago," said Mayor Emanuel at a press conference in April, when the plan was proposed. "The city of Chicago is moving towards a pre-K to college model." 

Over the past 10 years or so, the district has been a "national leader" in establishing college- and career-oriented initiatives, says Jenny Nagaoka, deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Recent efforts include providing a data system to counselors to track students' progress in completing college applications and administering a senior exit survey asking about students' postsecondary plans. 

In other words, Dr. Nagaoka says, "while the graduation requirement may seem radical from the outside, it is building off of efforts the district has been doing to support and track students through the transition to post-high school for over a decade." 

Chicago's move toward a pre-K to college model reflects a growing school of thought nationwide that just getting kids across the graduation finish line isn't enough, observers say. As of 2015, 29 states and the District of Columbia had policies mandating Individual Learning Plans – personalized programs with the goal of preparing students for life after high school – or similar initiatives.

The trend has been driven both by "the realization that economic mobility is predicated on some postsecondary credential" and "widespread statistics showing low-income students ... not succeeding in postsecondary pathways," says Mandy Savitz-Romer, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. 

"Today, we’ve arrived at a shared responsibility that [K-12 and postsecondary institutions] both need to do a better job," she says. "How schools go about doing that varies quite a lot." 

One more hurdle for struggling students?

Critics of Chicago's new initiative aren't optimistic that the graduation requirements will bring desired results. To truly level the playing field, they say, the district must address early roots of inequality, such as a lack of funding for early childhood education.  

"Chicagoans aren't asking for new graduation requirements," writes Ronnie Reese, spokesman for the Chicago Teachers Union, in an email. "They are asking for fully funded schools, an elected school board, transparent leadership and safe, well-resourced neighborhoods." 

Others express concern that the requirements could be not merely ineffective, but harmful. By requiring students to produce evidence of a college acceptance or job offer, some posit, the district is creating one more hurdle for students who already struggle to earn a diploma. Roughly 80 percent of CPS students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

"There’s the question of: Will this have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable students?" says Sherman Dorn, director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Most likely to be affected, he notes, are "students who do not have access to ... friends or neighbors or community mentors who say, 'This is how you apply to college,' or 'Here, I’ll help you apply to a job.' " 

A sense of discouragement could lead such students to drop out of high school or to commit to the military or other career programs out of desperation, other observers worry. 

Supporters of the plan, approved by the Board of Education in May, dispute this notion. Every Chicago Public Schools graduate is guaranteed admission to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system – a policy that could take some pressure off students who cannot produce a job offer or other college acceptance in time – though the new rules don't require accepted students to actually enroll. 

"The idea that you are going to actually have a post-high school educational plan and all of a sudden we're putting a burden on our kids' backs – I guarantee you the kids in Chicago will be better prepared for the future than any other child," said Emanuel during a National Press Club event in June. "Every other school system today leaves it to chance." 

Concern about resources

CPS has a graduation rate of 73 percent, a number that's risen steadily over the past five years in correlation with national trends, but still lags below the national average of 83 percent. Of those graduates, more than half have postsecondary plans.

"[Learn. Plan. Succeed.] is an initiative centered on equity," says CPS chief education officer Janice K. Jackson in a statement provided to the Monitor. "Nearly 60 percent of our seniors already graduate with a plan – but it should be universal."

An estimated 18 percent of ninth-graders in the district go on to earn a bachelor's degree within 10 years of starting high school, according to a recent study by the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research. 

If all goes well, the new policy could encourage counselors and teachers to "work more extensively" with students to "build a college-going culture," Dr. Nagaoka suggests. 

But others argue that school employees, already spread thin by recent district-wide layoffs, won't have the time or resources to make that outcome a reality.

Across the state, guidance counselors especially are in short supply. Illinois has a student-to-counselor ratio of 701-to-1, one of the highest in the country and a far cry from the American School Counselor Association's recommended 250-to-1. 

Ochoa, one of several guidance counselors serving more than 2,000 Schurz High School students, doesn't write off the new graduation model as inherently flawed. Perhaps in better-funded schools, he suggests, it could work.

However, he says, for the plan to benefit all students in the CPS district will require counselors and other staff to contribute a significantly greater amount of time and energy – resources that are already scarce in Chicago schools. 

"It’s just a matter of making resources match the plan," he says. "We’ll do what it takes, but there’s a lot of gaps." 

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Sherman Dorn's comments.]