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Rising graduate rates just beginning of major gains by Chicago Public Schools

Students enter Edwards Elementary School on South Karlov Avenue. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

If a lifetime in Chicago Public Schools — first as a student and now as CEO (and a CPS mom) — has shown me anything, it’s that kids buy in and reach new heights when grownups set big, bold goals and invest in their success.

This isn’t an anecdotal assessment. It’s based on data and facts.


Take the fact that our graduation rate is improving four times faster than the national rate. That’s based on a recent analysis that shows the district’s graduation rate has improved a remarkable 15.6 percentage points in the past four years compared to the 3.2 point increase calculated by the National Center for Education Statistics.

CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
CPS CEO Dr. Janice Jackson. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

More and more of our students are earning diplomas as we’ve raised our standards for graduation, and at this rate we will catch up to the national average. Chicago Public Schools are on the rise, and our district is becoming a beacon of what is achievable for large urban school districts across the country.

Our rising graduation rate is just the tip of the iceberg of what is happening in Chicago high schools.

As our graduation rate has climbed, so has our college enrollment rate. For the past eight years, both have hit a record high only to be topped the following year. That will continue.

We often hear tired refrains about the challenges of urban school districts like Chicago, but our students are making measurable gains in spite of these barriers. With this many students making this much progress, we should take a beat to reflect on how far we have come and consider what the future will hold.

This year, we are on track to reach an ambitious goal that at least half of all graduates will earn their diplomas with college or career credit already in their back pockets. Students who earn college credit in high school are more likely to apply to college, enroll in college and be better prepared for rigorous coursework when they get there.

Chicago students have access to more high quality International Baccalaureate, STEM and Dual Language programming than ever before, with the greatest growth occurring in areas of the city that for too long lacked high-quality program options. The number of students participating in Dual Credit and Dual Enrollment programs with City Colleges increased more than tenfold over the past 8 years — and some of those students are earning an associate’s degree at the same time as their high school diploma.

AP exam performance in the city is improving among every demographic subgroup — a statistical outlier among school districts of any size. And CPS has the largest network of IB schools in the country, with plans to expand beyond the 16,000 students the program currently serves in Chicago.

These programs and investments are essential for preparing kids to reach their potential.

Our commitment to expanding access to high quality programming has helped our students earn a record number of college scholarship offers, with the Class of 2018 raking in more than $1.3 billion scholarship dollars.

And this is why we continue to set audacious goals for students.

Learn.Plan.Succeed. is our groundbreaking graduation initiative to make sure every graduating student has a plan for success after 12th grade. Under this plan, all graduates will leave with an acceptance letter from a college, trade school or armed services branch, or have a plan to begin a job or participate in a gap-year program. To ensure this initiative benefits all of our students, we are having early conversations with every child in every school to help them plan for tomorrow and providing individualized reports that highlight potential opportunities each student can consider.

Our students need to leave high school with more than a degree in hand. They need a plan to be successful, and we are committed to making sure every graduate leaves our schools with their own roadmap to success.

There is a quiet revolution happening at Chicago Public Schools; a series of small steps at the beginning of a longer journey. This data only touches the tip of the iceberg.

Janice K. Jackson is CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

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