The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chicago won’t allow high school students to graduate without a plan for the future

Students walk through Chicago’s Senn High School after classes were dismissed in May. (Joshua Lott/For The Washington Post)

To graduate from a public high school in Chicago, students will soon have to meet a new and unusual requirement: They must show that they've secured a job or received a letter of acceptance to college, a trade apprenticeship, a gap year program or the military.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) said he wants to make clear that the nation’s third-largest school system is not just responsible for shepherding teenagers to the end of their senior year, but also for setting them on a path to a productive future.

“We are going to help kids have a plan, because they’re going to need it to succeed,” he said. “You cannot have kids think that 12th grade is done.”

Few would dispute that kids often need more than a high school diploma to thrive in today’s economy, but there is a simmering debate about the extent to which schools should be — and realistically can be — expected to ensure their graduates receive further training.

Emanuel’s plan, approved by the Board of Education in late May, has planted Chicago at the center of that debate.

Experts say Chicago Public Schools is the first big-city system to make post-graduation plans a graduation requirement. But the question is whether the cash-strapped district can provide enough mentoring and counseling to help its neediest students succeed when the rule takes effect in 2020.

At mayors conference, all eyes on Rahm Emanuel

Jermiya Mitchell, 17, a rising senior at Morgan Park High School on the South Side, said she has had few interactions with her guidance counselor. “We never had that conversation about life after high school,” she said. “I would like to have a counselor that really wanted to know what I wanted to do after high school and would help me get there.”

Some students, parents and teachers have embraced the move as a way to level the playing field for teens whose parents aren’t equipped to help them envision where they want to go after high school — or figure out how to get there.

“It means they have a plan instead of graduating and not knowing what they want to do,” said DeAvion Gillarm, 18, who just graduated from Morgan Park.

Critics say Emanuel's idea is an empty gesture that does nothing to address the fact that many teenagers are graduating in ­impoverished, violence-racked neighborhoods with few jobs, or that the most readily accessible community colleges are ill-prepared to meet the needs of first-generation students from low-income families. They also point out that the 381,000-student district laid off more than 1,000 teachers and staff members in 2016, and it is in such difficult financial straits that it struggled to keep its doors open for the final weeks of the school year.

Here are nine facts about poor students and the college experience. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: iStock/The Washington Post)

“It sounds good on paper, but the problem is that when you’ve cut the number of counselors in schools, when you’ve cut the kind of services that kids need, who is going to do this work?” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union and Emanuel’s longtime political opponent. “If you’ve done the work to earn a diploma, then you should get a diploma. Because if you don’t, you are forcing kids into more poverty.”

With state budget in crisis, many Oklahoma schools hold classes just four days a week

Victor Ochoa, a counselor at Carl Schurz High School in northwest Chicago, where students are overwhelmingly Hispanic and poor, said he has a caseload of 400 students and a grab bag of other duties: recruiting eighth-graders to enroll, registering students for classes and summer school, monitoring attendance, administering standardized tests, and helping students deal with crises from homelessness to street violence. Many counselors also serve as special-education coordinators, he said.

“To have a good conversation about college, that takes a one-on-one conversation,” he said. “We end up band-aiding it by giving them something written or telling them to get on Naviance,” a software program meant to help students plan for college.

School and city officials are impatient with the notion that the new requirement — originally suggested to Emanuel by Arne Duncan, the former Chicago schools chief who was education secretary under President Barack Obama — asks too much of students or schools.

Emanuel announced the initiative in April. Officials describe it as the logical next step in Chicago's efforts to improve public education. Despite the school system's financial woes, nearly 74 percent of students now graduate within four years — 16 points higher than the rate five years ago, although that's lower than the national average of 83 percent.

Nationally, there is a move afoot to hold schools accountable for what high school students do after graduation. Out of 17 states that have laid out plans for rating school performance under a new federal law, at least four plan to incorporate the percentage of graduates who enroll in college or another postsecondary option.

Chicago rates its high schools' performances based partly on the number of graduates who go to college and stay at least a year. High school graduates are guaranteed admission to one of the city's community colleges, if they apply, and about 40 percent of the Class of 2015 enrolled in a four-year college, approaching the national average (44 percent) that year.

The first students affected by the new requirement are rising sophomores in the Class of 2020. Emanuel argues that gives schools enough time to make sure students are ready, even without additional resources.

“I know what’s not good for kids is allowing them to go into a job market and the rest of their lives with a high school diploma when everything tells you that they need more than that,” Emanuel said.

Families have had mixed reactions. “Maybe it would make parents get invested in their kids’ education,” said Carrie Patterson, whose son Caron is a rising sophomore at Morgan Park.

“You should just get a diploma for what you do in high school,” said Zahria Parks, another student at the school.

Some schools have already undergone a transformation. One low-performing neighborhood school reopened in 2013 as Crane Medical Preparatory High School, a magnet school focused on preparing students for jobs in health-care industries. It connects students to summer internships, organizes college visits and hosts parent meetings about college planning and financial aid.

All of Crane’s 118 graduates this year know what they are doing next, according to Principal Fareeda Shabazz. One is headed to Dartmouth College, another to Skidmore College. Five young women are planning to work their way through college as phlebotomists, drawing blood with the skills they learned through a school-sponsored certification program.

“We really want to be a part of shaping and molding kids’ futures,” Shabazz said.

Amethyst Romo, 18, who just graduated from Chicago’s Marine Leadership Academy, credited her counselors and teachers and a senior college seminar with helping her see that higher education was a possibility — something her parents, who didn’t go to college, could not do.

In the fall, she plans to attend Goshen College — an Indiana school she visited on a trip that her counselor planned. “You just need a counselor that is dedicated enough,” she said.

But at many Chicago schools, the counseling staff is stretched thin.

Morgan Park has three guidance counselors and a college and career coach for about 1,300 students in grades seven through 12. Principal Carolyn Epps said counselors generally ask students about planning for the future in the summer before their senior year and that seniors get plenty of help navigating the college-application process.

Given the new graduation requirement, seniors beginning this fall will take a year-long seminar on planning for life after high school. Epps said she hopes to reach younger students through assemblies, parent meetings and instruction in home-room classes.

Janice Jackson, the school system’s chief education officer, said that is how the new requirement is supposed to work — pushing principals to improve efforts to help students prepare for the future. About 60 percent of district students have postsecondary plans when they graduate, she said, and she doesn’t think the schools should wait for more money to set an expectation that the remaining 40 percent follow suit.

Would Chicago really withhold diplomas from students who meet every requirement except the new one? Jackson says it won’t come to that, because principals, counselors and teachers won’t let it. They’ll go to students in that situation and press them to make sure they have a plan.

“There’s a big group in there who aren’t doing a whole lot after they leave high school,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to . . . guide them in the right direction.”