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Brown: CPS needs a Plan B to help kids meet new graduation hurdle

Janice Jackson, the new Chicago Public Schools CEO, at Edwards Elementary School last year. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he has a “groundbreaking initiative” to help Chicago public high school students succeed in the world by requiring them to develop plans for life after graduation.

I don’t know about you, but any time I hear “groundbreaking” mentioned in connection with a school system that’s struggling just to keep the doors open, my antenna goes up.

In this case, the mayor would impose a new graduation requirement on high school seniors.

Before they could get their diploma, they would have to provide a letter showing they’ve been accepted to college, the military or a trade.

They also could satisfy the requirement with a letter showing they either have a job or a job offer, or have been accepted into a “gap year” program in which students take a year off before going to college.

That all sounds swell.

OPINION

Every kid probably ought to have some kind of plan, as long as they understand they don’t need to follow it. Success in life often has less to do with how well a person follows the plan they make at age 18 as what they do when life knocks them off course.

There’s nothing wrong with setting the bar higher for students either. Simply by requiring them to have some plan, any plan, more of them are likely to develop a real one.

And yet.

I guess what bothers me is CPS adding this requirement without giving students more tools to help them meet it in a substantive way.

The last thing students need is another meaningless bureaucratic hurdle to clear, another box to check on a form that doesn’t actually prepare them for that better future we all want for them.

What they need is more help preparing for college or for the alternatives, which requires a richer school curriculum and more extracurricular opportunities that open doors and allow them to succeed once they get there.

As it stands, the responsibility to help students develop these plans will fall on CPS counselors, many of whom already consider themselves stretched too thin with caseloads of 380 students each.

There is no expectation of adding more counselors, only to give them additional training on advising students about their plans for after high school.

You’d don’t need to be a curmudgeonly newspaper reporter to imagine how somebody might choose to game this system down the road. I doubt anyone will ever fail to graduate for wont of a letter.

The new graduation requirement won’t take effect until the Class of 2020, meaning current freshmen, which is at least some acknowledgment this isn’t something you just impose overnight.

Janice Jackson, CPS’ chief education officer, nodded to my reservations, but suggested I was overlooking steps the district has already taken to keep students on track for graduation and get them into college.

While conceding “there are a lot of burdens” on counselors, she said the responsibility of developing the new post-graduation plans is “not outside their normal work duties,” and more important, the part of the job that counselors most enjoy.

Jackson said the district wants to make sure students realize getting a high school diploma is not the last stop in their education.

When CPS teachers ask their freshmen classes who plans to go to college, nearly every student raises their hand, but only 42 percent of seniors actually go to college, Jackson said.

“Something in between changes their mind,” she said.

It might have something to do with spending four years in an under-resourced Chicago public school in a state that is cannibalizing its university system and undercutting financial supports for college students.

By all means, require high school graduates to make a plan for what’s next. But maybe it’s time the rest of us came up with some realistic plans to help them get there.