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Chicago Has a Destructive Plan to “Prepare” Students for Life After High School

Will requiring high school students to make post-graduation plans help or hurt their futures?

Chicago is touting a first-of-its-kind requirement for high school students — and it’s raising plenty of eyebrows.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a proposal last week to withhold high school diplomas from students without concrete post-graduation plans. The plan has been called “cruel and appalling,” “absurd,” and a “half-baked” attempt to “micro-manage.”

This attempt would demand students to prove, with acceptance letters, that they are set up for one of six post-high school plans: college, military enlistment, a job program (like coding camp), a trade pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship, a gap-year program, or a job. The mayor’s office says the “groundbreaking” requirement will help students succeed past high school. But for now, the proposal faces the charge that it may not stand on firm legal grounds — and that it pressures students without supporting them. Pacific Standard spoke with Miranda Johnson, associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University, about whether the plan will make it — and what components it needs to help the students it’s targeting.


Elena Gooray: Does the school district have the legal authority to make this kind of requirement?

Miranda Johnson: I think currently that’s unclear. There is a provision in the Illinois administrative code saying that additional requirements for graduation may be adopted by local boards of education. So that provision seems to provide authority for local boards of education to go above and beyond the curricular requirements in state law for high school graduation. However, much of what state law refers to is coursework and curriculum.

Our concern is that this type of proposal seems to go beyond curricular requirements into the realm of their post-secondary planning process, as well as the process that would enable students to move into post-secondary choices. I think there is the potential for legal challenges. We’ve looked into what other legal challenges in this area have been pursued, and there’s very limited case law on that.

Right, this proposal has been described as a first. How unusual is it?

I’ve never heard of a proposal of this kind. In fact, CPS [Chicago Public Schools] says on their website it’s the first of its kind in the country.

Interestingly, on their website, CPS also cites this as an evidence-based proposal. I was puzzled by that. If it’s the first of its kind, what’s the evidence suggesting this is the appropriate type of proposal?

Do you have any idea what kind of research they’re gesturing toward there — maybe on how planning for post-high school is helpful?

I’m assuming that’s what they’re talking about — the importance of post-secondary education to a student’s long-term life outcomes. Which is undeniable. When students can enter into post-secondary education and succeed in those settings to obtain a diploma, that considerably helps their long-term life outcomes. We would certainly agree with that as a goal for CPS students. The question is whether imposing a new graduation requirement of this kind will help make that goal a reality.

What do you think might be the real effects of implementing this proposal?

If this proposal came along with a real robust commitment to support students throughout their high school education, to develop a meaningful plan to ensure that they are to enter post-secondary education and then provide the support for them to do that, it could be really positive. But I’m concerned that imposing such a requirement at the conclusion of a student’s career without sufficient support at the onset of the student’s career could end up meaning the requirement is detrimental to students.

One of the goals seems to be to ensure that more CPS students go on to our community colleges in Chicago, which I think is a terrific goal. The problem, however, is that when many of our students go into community colleges, they are not successful later. The City Colleges of Chicago’s provides considerable information about graduation and retention rates. Their graduation rates range from 8 percent to 26 percent in a three-year graduation cycle, for a two-year associate’s degree. Even within three years, the majority of students aren’t graduating, based on a 2013–14 graduation rate survey. And their retention rates range from 38 percent to 57 percent. (That’s the number of students who start in the fall term and then return the following year to continue their education.)

Does it seem like this plan emphasizes community college? It mentions a few post-secondary options.

At least in the media reporting relating to what the CPS spokespeople are saying, it seems they’re relying on the idea that this plan is achievable for many students because there is a provision that requires community colleges to accept students, so long as the space is permitting. This idea that students will be accepted into their local community college so long as spots are available — we’re concerned about whether the community college system is equipped to handle the sheer number of students who might now be applying.

But even if students are going to be accepted, they still have to apply for admission and for financial aid. Some students may not have either the support at school or at home for them to put in those application materials. And if they apply and get in and get financial aid and go, if they’re not successful at community college and not able to graduate, they may have student loan debt as a result of that choice.

What can the board of education and the mayor’s office prioritize to help make sure students will be successful after leaving high school?

I like the idea of, starting in freshman year, having a plan in consultation with the student and their parents as to what their post-secondary options might look like and then sequencing throughout their high school career the steps they would need to achieve that. For example, if they want to go on to be an HVAC technician, or a plumber, or an electrician — what are the ways in which their curricular choices and extracurricular options, like over the summer, can seed into making that plan a reality?

And then if their plan is to go to community college, how can they be exposed to students in community college early on so they can hear about the experience and understand what it’s like? How can they start planning to take the type of classes in high school that will enable their success in community college?

There are also these waiver [options]. They’re proposing some waivers for students with special life circumstances, including undocumented students, currently incarcerated students, and students in alternative schools. (They don’t mention students with disabilities among the waivers, which is concerning.) But I also would think that these populations of students are the most at-risk for not having viable post-secondary plans. Rather than exempting them from a major initiative like that, I would like to see us target those students and specifically support them.

This story originally appeared as “Chicago Has a Controversial Plan to Prepare Students for Life After High School” on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine in print and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.”

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