Chicago's New Graduation Requirement Can Work, If Students Have the Support They Need

This June, Back of the Yards College Prep High School in Chicago will hold its first graduation ceremony. It’s a brand-new neighborhood high school where every student can take advantage of various high-level academic and career programs offered by the International Baccalaureate Organization. As of April, 89 percent of Back of the Yards seniors have been accepted to colleges. Vanessa Ortega is one of them. She will be heading to Western Illinois University with the career goal of becoming an athletic trainer. When district leaders recently announced a new graduation requirement that each senior leave high school with a plan for their next step, she didn’t see what the big deal was. “I feel like it’s overkill,” she said. “We’re already required to apply to seven colleges.” Back of the Yards is among the top fifth of public high schools in Chicago, where strong counseling to help seniors to prepare for life after high school is a given. But that’s not true across the city as a whole. District leaders say the goal of the new requirement is to level the playing field. Chief Academic Officer Janice Jackson estimates about 40 percent of the city’s public high school students attend schools where more attention has been more focused on getting to graduation than on what happens next. “We have some schools where the college-going culture isn’t there yet,” she notes. To push them to think beyond the high school diploma, “we had to codify with policy.” The new push is also the next step on a path that started back in the mid-2000s, when the Consortium on School Research estimated that just 8 percent of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) graduates were earning college degrees by their mid-20s. When the district looked that statistic full in the face, it got much more serious and strategic about  college advising. By 2015, that figure  had risen to 16 percent. Nationally, 22 percent of demographically similar students are completing college within 10 years of starting high school. “We’ve doubled our college graduation rate and we’re closing in on the national average,” says CPS Chief Academic Officer Janice Jackson. “I’m proud of our progress, but we still have a long way to go.”

Good Plans Require Accountability

While the current district accountability policy tracks college entrance rates for each high school’s graduates, the new planning requirement will also become part of the district’s high school accountability measures. The policy change puts pressure on principals and counselors to carve out time and use best practices in advising to help students look beyond high school to what lies ahead. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Surprisingly, when the plan was announced, it sparked strong negative reaction in some quarters. Largely,  critics feared students would be denied diplomas if their life circumstances made it unrealistic for them to take a next step into college or work right away. But Jackson says that won’t happen. Counselors will be tracking students’ progress on postsecondary planning, and there will be waivers for students with special circumstances. Though the current financial crisis has forced counselor layoffs and caused teachers to express concern that the district doesn’t have the  capacity to make this policy work in real life, in recent years schools have become much savvier about bringing in outside partners to help with advising. From intensive student supports like  OneGoal and  iMentor to whole-school partnerships like the  Network for College Success that help staff think through how best to create a strong culture focused on life after high school, high schools are getting support. Jackson points to the city’s longstanding service learning policy as a parallel. “We don’t have any students who haven’t completed their service learning,” she notes. “We do have students who are more civically involved. Past practice has shown students rise to the occasion and get it done.”
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an ...

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