Chicago Will Hold Diplomas Hostage Unless Teens Can Prove They Have Plans After High School

But critics say underfunded mandates will only add to the problems already plaguing public education in the Windy City.

The adage, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” can’t just apply to high school graduates.

Beginning with the class of 2020, all Chicago Public School students who meet traditional academic requirements necessary to graduate must also present a post-graduation plan before they can cross the stage to receive their diploma. Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the city’s Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson hope to raise a million dollars for the “Learn. Plan. Succeed” initiative to add eight additional counselors to 172 high schools that teach almost 110,000 students. Chicago Public Schools have reported to the mayor’s office since 1995. But critics rightly point out that underfunded mandates like this one will only add to, not alleviate, the problems already plaguing Chicago schools.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Underfunded mandates only add to the problems plaguing Chicago schools.[/quote]

Given the natural indecisiveness of teens, I think it’s good to ask students for a concrete plan. Graduation should offer more tangible signs of preparedness than a piece of paper. The policy calls for students to present an acceptance letter from a college, a branch of the armed services, an employer, a trade school or a “gap-year” program. Students are supposed to graduate to something.

There are real ways to bolster this initiative, including expanding the city’s After School Matters program, which employs approximately 16,000 Chicago teens in various jobs in the summer. As the school year winds down, why not employ collegians, typically already back from summer break, to enhance a counseling corps to deliver the new effort?

The youth unemployment rate is roughly twice the overall national rate, when youth is defined as anyone under the age of 24, according to a 2016 study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. EPI also found that most young workers don’t have a degree and recent college graduates face a tough job market. Even though the unemployment rate has improved in the last decade, the class of 2016 joined “a sizable backlog of unemployed college graduates” dating back to 2009, the study found.

Chicago’s job prospects for black youth make the national outlook look positively sunny. Nearly half of young black men in the Windy City are considered “opportunity youth,” meaning they are neither in school nor working, according to a 2016 study from a research and policy outfit housed at the University of Illinois.

Students currently in college can stand to get practical job experience before entering a competitive job market. With the longstanding, citywide dearth of black teachers, and as a consequence, black role models, I can see Chicago Public Schools reaching out to its recent graduates to introduce local talent to the teaching and counseling professions. Only 18% of ninth-graders graduate high school and go on to earn a bachelor's degree within 10 years of starting high school, according to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, a group focused on analyzing educational outcomes in the city. Giving collegians training and high school students an experienced person to review their plan seems like a win-win.

City officials must leverage this new program to create the jobs that college graduates need. Academic growth on statewide exams won’t buy you lunch. The point is, initiatives such as “Learn. Plan. Succeed” have to deliver financial capital, jobs, scholarships, and other tangible benefits to the people who actually need it. Too often, new initiatives enrich people who don’t.

Where there is political will, there will be resources. If Emanuel wants to get the resources, and local groups demand that he does, the money and personnel will emerge.

I really like the idea of making degrees count for students, but one big problem threatens the success of “Learn. Plan. Succeed” — putting all-or-nothing consequences on vulnerable students for whom the stakes of life are already high enough.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Every employer should have paid internships available for low-income students.[/quote]

For Emanuel and Jackson’s plan to succeed, it needs to go beyond making demands on students without addressing the other side of the success equation — the businesses that will employ them and the colleges and armed forces that recruit them.

The institutions that students graduate to also share in the responsibility of safely transitioning youth into working life. School leaders already know how to pressure, punish. and bribe students, schools, and districts into change. What’s missing is an effective strategy to compel chambers of commerce to be more inclusive and for colleges to accept students who don’t necessarily enhance their reputations. Chicago’s businesses can create citywide equity goals that the local chamber of commerce can monitor and promote. More colleges can relax standardized tests that tend to be barriers for low-income students. Real innovation would oblige companies and colleges to see themselves as the 13th and 14th grades.

Employers should be doing more to turn students into more attractive candidates for employment. Every employer should have paid internships available for low-income students. Internships and apprenticeships help youth gain connections and social skills, as well as forge pathways to employment. The burden of preparing students for the “real world” has to fall on employers, colleges, and the military — the real world.

Learning continues beyond high school, and higher education institutions and employers need to support and help train their new charges. They must also see themselves as being accountable to the youth who fill their ranks. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

I’m waiting for Emanuel’s plan for the Chamber of Commerce.

Julian Meehan

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