Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to require students to have a post-graduation plan before they can get a diploma shows a lack of understanding as to what happens to CPS students who have made it to graduation.
Emanuel wants a student to obtain a letter of acceptance from a two- or four-year university, the military, a trade, or a gap year program. Former Secretary of Education and CPS CEO Arne Duncan recently lauded the idea in a Chicago Tribune op-ed.
During my 13 years as a Chicago Public Schools educator, I have worked with juniors and seniors at three different schools — a traditional neighborhood school, a new, small school, and a selective enrollment school. Most seniors I worked with had a plan very similar to one that Emanuel is proposing. The problem is, a plan isn’t enough.
Six years ago, I worked closely with seniors at TEAM Englewood. Impressively, 98 percent of our student body of 75 had been accepted to a two- or four-year college. To achieve that number took legwork that, unfortunately, Mayor Emanuel has not proposed thus far.
At Englewood, we had a dedicated counselor and a class that gave students time every day with that counselor and a teacher to work on applications and scholarships. Emanuel has proposed only extra training for existing counselors who help students suffering from social and emotional issues, poverty-related setbacks, and learning disabilities. Imagine how many extra counselors we would need to help students all over the district.
Despite the success of our 98 percent acceptance rate, after a summer away from high school, only about 60 percent of the accepted seniors actually went to college. This difference between acceptance and enrollment is normal for many school districts in our nation. The Tribune recently praised Urban Prep Academy for its annual announcement of 100 percent college acceptance, yet according to the University of Chicago’s To-and-Through data, in 2015, only 56 percent of the graduates from their Englewood campus were enrolled in a college or university.
As a district, CPS has a 74 percent graduation rate but only a 44 percent college enrollment rate. National college graduation rates show an even bleaker picture. According to NPR, during the 2014-2015 school year, our nation’s graduation rate rose to 83 percent, the highest rate in history. However, as the National Student Clearinghouse reports, only 54.8 percent of college students complete undergraduate degrees in six years.
Emanuel and supporters of his “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” requirement assume that students having a plan will garner success. Instead, CPS needs to connect high schools to college and universities. Just as many high schools provide summer bridge programs to elementary schools, community colleges and in-state universities can do the same and enroll students closer to graduation rather than allow Chicago’s summer streets to take hold of our seniors.
At the high school level, school and teacher leaders should devise ways to make senior year an actual transition year to college. Many students across the nation experience a senior year that feels more like their junior year in high school instead of their freshman year in college.
A requirement without investment is not reform. It is more of a political statement than an educational game-changer. Real educational reform takes a well-thought out plan with knowledge of what is already happening for our students. Our leaders should operate with both in mind.
Gina Caneva is a 13-year CPS veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.