Maureen Kelleher

Lesson From Chicago: Dropping Out on Our Students

Last week, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) finally acknowledged that it had  overstated graduation rates in recent years because thousands of dropouts had been recorded as transfers. When a June  investigation by reporters Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea revealed more than 2,000 dropouts from 25 high schools had been falsely recorded, CPS at first refused to go back and fix its numbers. The fact that it did is a credit to system leaders. But it will take more than accurate accounting to eliminate the adult mindsets that lie at the root of the problem.

The Problem: Goodbye and Good luck

Way back in 1989, I was a brand-new college graduate teaching returning high school dropouts in Chicago’s diverse Uptown neighborhood. When I had one-on-one time with students, I would sometimes ask why they left school. Almost every student would respond, “I didn’t leave—they dropped me.” When I asked what it meant to have a school drop you, the stories poured out. It meant, when they had big problems outside of school—parents separating, family members dying, mental or physical health issues—no one paid attention. It meant when their physical safety was in danger en route to school or within the building, no one had their back. It meant they were suspended repeatedly—sometimes for minor offenses—until they got so frustrated they stopped coming. Ultimately, being dropped meant when they had missed more than a set number of days of school, they were handed a list of alternative programs and told, “good luck.” No one made sure that those pushouts actually landed somewhere. Yet, too often, schools recorded them as having transferred to another school or program that could grant a diploma. In effect, the schools pushed out students and lied about it.

Dropping Dead Weight

From the school’s viewpoint, dropping students meant “removing dead weight.” That’s what an assistant principal  told me in 1998, when I reported on pushouts for Catalyst Chicago. That assistant principal told me that the students who missed too many days were the ones who dragged down test scores, who “destroy” a school. Funny. I taught quite a few of those students, first at Prologue Alternative High School and later at El Cuarto Año, a GED program serving students mostly from Chicago’s West Town and Humboldt Park neighborhoods. Those very same students—the ones who missed all those days of high school—were the ones who taught me to dance salsa, the ones who devoured Piri Thomas’ “Down These Mean Streets” and passionately argued over key passages, the ones who met with the local alderman to push for a midnight basketball league at the park.

It’s Time We Hold On

It’s not the first time Chicago Public Schools has been publicly called to task for misleading the public about dropout rates. To the district’s credit, this is the first time it has publicly discussed potential systemic fixes to prevent schools from doctoring their numbers, like altering the computer system that records dropouts and transfers to prevent clerks from entering false information. But without continued pressure and public accountability, you can bet that schools will fall back into their old patterns. I actually joked with Karp and Vevea that they had to promise me they’ll do the same reporting again in a few years to make sure CPS lives up to its promises. Chicago also needs a broader discussion about taking steps to fix the root of the problems. A big one is the belief gap; another is creating time and systems for adults to connect with students as individuals. Locally, the  Network for College Success has helped Chicago’s neighborhood high schools address the challenges, while charters like the Noble Network have made it a priority to keep students  in the same school where they start and build support systems that keep them engaged and on the path to a bright future. The  XQ Super School Challenge is the latest opportunity to tackle these problems. Let’s hope that district leaders make good on their promises to keep schools honest about their dropout rates. And let’s call on district and charter leaders of all kinds to dive deeper into the solutions they need to hold on to their high school students.  
Maureen Kelleher is a Chicago charter school parent and veteran education writer. Her work has appeared in Education Week and Catalyst Chicago.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She 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 associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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