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A pandemic didn’t stop Chicago Public Schools seniors from planning for life after high school

Despite COVID-19, 97.5% of seniors worked with counselors under Learn.Plan.Succeed, a 2017 initiative that made post-secondary plans a graduation requirement.

Whitney Young Magnet High School graduates pose for a picture after the drive-thru graduation ceremony on June 13, 2020.
Whitney Young Magnet High School graduates pose for a picture after the drive-thru graduation ceremony on June 13, 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

I see a lot of myself in Quamasia.

The ambitious, passionate Richards Career Academy graduate has just started college on a full-ride scholarship with the hope of becoming a high school English teacher and school principal. She stood out on my Student Advisory Council as a senior last school year because of her commitment to student advocacy. She balanced that responsibility alongside a rigorous course load and a job at a fast food restaurant, but she graduated at the top of her class — all during a pandemic.

While so many young people are facing unprecedented challenges at this moment, I’m optimistic not only for her, but for the 97.5% of seniors who submitted a strong post-secondary plan under Learn.Plan.Succeed.

In addition to holding the first car parade graduations and the first online semester, the Class of 2020 is also the first group of students to graduate with this requirement. Introduced in 2017, Learn.Plan.Succeed was intended to make sure that every student has meaningful conversations with adults at their school who can help them create a post-secondary plan that lays out a successful path forward after high school.

The results are encouraging: Nearly every student in the Class of 2020 graduated with such a plan.

Good post-secondary guidance is our responsibility at CPS. It’s something every student needs and deserves. It’s also a matter of equity, because some of our students don’t have the support at home they need to fully evaluate their post-secondary opportunities.

Despite the “controversy” when it was launched in 2017, it is clear that Learn.Plan.Succeed has been more important than ever during this pandemic. The initiative was never intended to be a barrier to graduation and the data shows it wasn’t. Even with the unprecedented uncertainty created by this pandemic, dedicated counselors were able to support our students so nearly all of them could create their plans.

Jobs, the military, apprenticeships

An important hallmark of Learn.Plan.Succeed is that it celebrates options beside college. Higher education remains our district’s North Star, but we know that a single option won’t work for every student, especially during these uncertain times. Many of our recent graduates are now college freshmen, while others are pursuing a job training program, apprenticeship, a “gap year” or military service.

Knowing that thousands of young people are well-positioned to become the future leaders of our city is extremely encouraging. But the truth is that every single one of these graduates still faces barriers to success. Each year, far too many of our graduates, especially those who would be the first in their family to make it to college, end up not enrolling for various reasons. It’s a trend known as “summer melt,” and the pandemic and its economic hardships made summer melt a huge concern for CPS.

This year, we tackled it head-on with extra support, encouragement and guidance. We partnered with Thrive Chicago to connect a transition coordinator with over 11,000 recent graduates over the summer to provide them with specialized direction based on their own individual circumstances.

Some students need an encouraging mentor. Others might need help with expenses that you or I wouldn’t think twice about. The price of books or a bus ticket to campus shouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier to college for our graduates. So our district’s foundation, the Children’s First Fund, launched a $150,000 micro-grant program that awarded 350 graduates the money to cover registration fees and other small but essential expenses.

We are all navigating a world we couldn’t have imagined only months ago, and we’re all facing real uncertainty about the days ahead. For our graduates, who are just beginning one of the most significant transitions of their lives, the uncertainty is even more pronounced.

While I’m concerned about the challenges our students will face, I’m heartened to know that so many of them have already been given support to plan through the next phase of their life. Because with the right support, nothing — not even a pandemic — will stop the Class of 2020 from turning their diplomas into dreams.

Janice K. Jackson is the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Follow her on Twitter @JaniceJackson