Chicago’s grad­u­a­tion plan

To get diplo­mas, high school se­niors must show they’ve lined up what comes next: col­lege, the mil­i­tary or a job.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

THE JOB of K-12 ed­u­ca­tion tra­di­tion­ally has been con­sid­ered com­plete when stu­dents walk across the stage to get their diploma. That is about to change in Chicago with an am­bi­tious, and con­tro­ver­sial, ini­tia­tive re­quir­ing pub­lic school stu­dents to have a post-grad­u­a­tion plan to earn a diploma. Chicago lead­ers are right to make of­fi­cial what long has been rec­og­nized — the need for more than a high school diploma to succeed in to­day’s economy — and, more im­por­tantly, to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for help­ing stu­dents meet that chal­lenge.

Start­ing in 2020, un­der a plan cham­pi­oned by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and unan­i­mously ap­proved by the school board, diplo­mas will be tied to stu­dents de­vis­ing post-sec­ondary plans. High school se­niors must show they’ve been ac­cepted into col­lege, or the mil­i­tary, or into a trade or “gap-year” pro­gram, or have se­cured a job. The idea is to raise ex­pec­ta­tions and thus pro­duce bet­ter out­comes for stu­dents.

About 60 per­cent of the district’s stu­dents al­ready have post-sec­ondary plans, and of­fi­cials be­lieve that re­quir­ing stu­dents to plan for “what’s next” will help, not hurt, the re­main­ing stu­dents. Crit­ics worry that stu­dents who have com­pleted four years of high school will be hand­i­capped if de­nied a diploma, but of­fi­cials point out that strength­en­ing aca­demic rigor has pro­duced an in­crease, not a de­crease, in grad­u­a­tion rates. Just 16 years ago, nearly half of Chicago stu­dents failed to fin­ish school, but to­day al­most 3 out of 4 grad­u­ate, a re­mark­able turn­around that came as the district added re­quire­ments for com­mu­nity ser­vice and raised the aca­demic bar on core sub­jects.

“The kids al­ways rise to the chal­lenge,” said Arne Dun­can, the for­mer Chicago schools chief and ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama who planted the idea of the new re­quire­ment with Mr. Emanuel. “Young peo­ple,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Chicago Tri­bune, “don’t drop out be­cause school is too hard. They drop out be­cause it is too easy and they are not en­gaged.”

A core foun­da­tion of Mr. Emanuel’s ef­forts — largely suc­cess­ful — to im­prove pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion has been to pro­vide the types of sup­ports and op­tions that are taken for granted by mid­dle- and up­per-class stu­dents. Just as in­creased in­struc­tion time and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties ben­e­fit stu­dents un­able to get that help at home, so will the new re­quire­ment com­pen­sate for the lack of din­nertable con­ver­sa­tions about what’s next and what’s ex­pected. “Just like you do with your chil­dren” was Mr. Emanuel’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the school sys­tem’s role when he un­veiled plans for the new re­quire­ment in April.

Re­spon­si­bil­ity, of course, is not the stu­dent’s alone. It is im­por­tant that the Chicago school sys­tem fol­low through with the coun­sel­ing and re­lated ser­vices (in­clud­ing out­reach to par­ents) that will arm the need­i­est stu­dents with what they re­quire to grad­u­ate — and then take that crit­i­cal next step.

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