In recent years, the fate of Chicago's public schools is increasingly driven by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former Obama administration top adviser and Chicago native. Some community activists and a growing number of black and Latino parents are expressing anxiety and unhappiness over what they see as his disregard for their needs, and the barriers they face due in part to historic institutional discrimination.
For many, alarms went off last week when he announced proposed new high school graduation requirements.
Dubbed "Learn. Plan. Succeed. — A Degree for Life," the plan will require the Class of 2020 to meet at least one of the following metrics in addition to existing class completion requirements in order to graduate: a college acceptance letter; a military acceptance/enlistment letter; acceptance at a job program (for example, coding bootcamp); acceptance into a trades pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship; acceptance into a "gap-year" program; or current job/job offer letter.
Some advocates say Emanuel's new plan will create another barrier for the city's most vulnerable students, in particular, black and Latino students already struggling to graduate from under-resourced, overcrowded schools.
Over the past three years, Emanuel's involvement in Chicago Public Schools board decision-making and budget allocations has angered activists and parents, who accuse him of carelessly engineering an inequitable distribution of school closings that disproportionately affected black or Latino neighborhoods.
The goal of the proposed new graduation requirement is not to introduce a potential barrier, but to encourage a "change in mindset" of students and parents, to encourage a focus on "what's next," the mayor said last week, according to the Chicago Tribune:
"Just like you do with your children, college, post-high school, that is what's expected," Emanuel said at a Wednesday morning news conference. "If you change expectations, it's not hard for kids to adapt."
The mayor's mention of "like you do with your children," raises questions about his grasp of his school district's largest student and parent constituency — African-Americans, and Latinos, populations that largely do not hail from middle or upper-income households such as the one where Emanuel resides. Further, his casually saying, "change expectations, it's not hard for kids to adapt," belies an insensitivity, at best, to the very real challenges that many (but not all) low-income families encounter on the road to children graduating high school with a diploma.
Historically, college-readiness under CPS' list of graduation requirements includes grades completion, and also access to AP and other tests that meet admissions requirements at many colleges, public and private nationwide. But, job-readiness, or career-preparation, and military enrollment, has not been required for graduation at CPS and most American public school districts.
However, the CPS has seen its share of challenges from decades of accumulating factors, including deep budget cuts that led to widespread teacher layoffs, the shuttering of 49 schools located primarily in low-income neighborhoods, months of protests and hearings, and a former CEO who pleaded guilty to a $23 million kickback scheme. A volatile recurring theme courses throughout many of these developments — racial discrimination and economic inequalities — which existed long before Emanuel became mayor.
The sprawling city public school district serves nearly 400,000 pupils from pre-K through 12th grade, with African-Americans comprising the majority of pupils, 37.7 percent, more than 80 percent of all CPS students live in households classified as economically-disadvantaged. The vestiges of Chicago's not-too-distant past formal and informal policies that supported the racial segregation of many city institutional and residential spaces is fresh in the minds of many black residents.
The intersecting socio-economic factors that can combine to negatively impact graduation rates of students from low-income households are not unique to Chicago. They are well-documented by experts across state and federal education research units, and by education analysts in nonprofits. Yet in Chicago, where police brutality, on-going gun violence, stubborn income inequality, and where school closings continue to fuel anxiety in some African-American and Latino communities, the latest announcement from the mayor seemed to land especially badly.
A 2016 study by researchers affiliated with the Brookings Institution of high school completion rates, for example, found that cities and towns with pronounced income inequality of residential populations are more likely to see higher rates of secondary school drop-outs, and lower graduation rates.
Released in March 2016, the report, "Income Inequality, Social Mobility, and the Decision to Drop Out Of High School," by Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow and University of Maryland economics professor Melissa S. Kearney, and Wellesley College economics professor Phillip B. Levine, analyzed education attainment factors related to income inequality and how they influence upward mobility.
Among their findings, Kearney and Levine's study revealed that students in low-income households that are in proximity to comparatively well-off communities face increased challenges when it comes to completing high school. Moreover, "low-income youth — boys in particular — are 4.1 percentage points more likely to drop out of high school by age 20 if they live in a high-inequality location relative to those who live in a low-inequality location."
An unrelated 2014 study by Brookings Institution experts found that Chicago ranked eighth among American cities in an index of income inequality.
All told, Emanuel's apparently well-meaning effort to "change expectations" by asking CPS students and their parents to ensure to complete a new hurdle — however seemingly low, in Emanuel's estimation — before being approved for graduation, misses key nuances of many student's realities.
One national education expert even wonders if the new graduation requirement is legal.
Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., said of the "Learn. Plan. Succeed" requirement, "I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've never heard of anything like that. The question I would have for Mayor Emanuel is: 'Where did this come from? What informed your thinking to lead you to believe that this was a good plan of action for CPS?,'" Ferguson said in an interview with The Chicago Tribune. She added that it is unclear if the new policy would meet legal standards, based on the listed requirements for obtaining a diploma under CPS's current graduation guidelines. In addition, the district may not have counselor resources necessary to help members of the Class of 2020 meet the proposed requirements.
Demetria Gallagher, a Chicago native and a former academic advisor to African-American students entering the University of Illinois, Chicago, said the proposed plan can use revision before being implemented.
"College-readiness is a long term process that should be integrated within the high school curriculum, especially when it comes to first-generation, and low-income students," said Gallagher, who graduated from the University of Chicago, Urbana-Champaign, and most recently served as an Obama Administration appointee and economic policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. "For underserved students, they may graduate from high school, but the key question is, are they truly prepared academically for college instruction and success?," she said..
Why does Mayor Emanuel assume that forcing the current crop of 9th graders, the Class of 2020, to show a job offer letter or military enrollment verification, is a good way to help encourage students to graduate?
Amy Alexander, an award-winning writer and editor, is the author of four nonfiction books, including Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention.