Should high schools worry about what students do after graduation? This city says yes

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PBS NewsHour May 22, 2018 
Chicago has a new plan to make sure kids pursue a college degree or have another viable career path after high school. By 2020, in order to get a diploma from Chicago public schools, a student will have to prove that they have a job, will be joining a trade school, will go on to college or join the military.

Hari Sreenivasan reports as part of our series Rethinking College.

And now to our special look at Rethinking College this graduation season.

Our stories have been focused on programs that are helping lower-income students climb the ladder to economic stability.

In Chicago, there’s a new plan to make sure kids pursue a college degree or have another viable career path after high school.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.  
It’s for our weekly segment Making the Grade.

Hari Sreenivasan:
Students at North-Grand High School in Chicago know their teachers have high expectations.

Brett Murphy:
We have talked so much about GPA, and how every assignment and every class counts.

Hari Sreenivasan:
But, on this day, freshman seminar teacher Brett Murphy upped the ante.

Brett Murphy:
The class that has the highest overall GPA as a whole will get to shave my head right here in the middle of the classroom, sitting in a chair.

Hari Sreenivasan:
A high school on academic probation just five years ago, North-Grand’s new focus on raising grades has transformed them into a top performing school, even before teacher Murphy decided to have fun with the idea.

Brett Murphy:
The first person will take an electric razor and zoom it across my entire head. The next student will come up here and lather my head up with a bunch of shaving cream.

Hari Sreenivasan:
North-Grand High principal Emily Feltes-

Emily Feltes:
The idea of freshman seminar came because we wanted to help our kids learn how to do high school successfully, so really getting them into this mind-set of, college is possible, I am capable.

Hari Sreenivasan:
The seminar is part of a new citywide strategy to get students prepared for life after high school. It’s called Learn, Plan, Succeed.

By 2020, in order to get a diploma from Chicago Public Schools, a student will have to prove that they either have a job, will be joining a trade school, will go on to college, or join the military.

Rahm Emanuel:
High school degree doesn’t cut it anymore.

Hari Sreenivasan:
The idea came from Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Rahm Emanuel:
You just have to show either a letter from college, a letter of acceptance from a branch of the armed forces, or a letter of acceptance from a trade school.

That will give to us the confidence that you have a plan for the future. You’re not just dropping off the cliff on high school graduation day.

Hari Sreenivasan:
Is that the responsibility of the city of Chicago?

Rahm Emanuel:
It’s a responsibility to the kids of the city of Chicago, yes.

Hari Sreenivasan:
North-Grand senior Joshua Zayas was accepted at eight schools. Neither his parents nor his older brothers went to college.

Joshua Zayas:
Their high school didn’t really push them to excel to the next level. Here, like, it’s a requirement.

Hari Sreenivasan:
But Zayas has reasons beyond the district’s expectations. Last year, his 19-year-old brother, who he says took the wrong path, was shot and killed.

Joshua Zayas:
Seeing where he dropped out, and how his life went, that was something that actually motivated me not to do. I honestly don’t want to struggle. Like, that’s my thing. I just don’t want to struggle. I want to have my career and I’m set, happy, home and…

Hari Sreenivasan:
Should the city be worried about what happens after graduation?

Emily Feltes:
I think it’s a moral imperative to be worried about what happens for our children after graduation. The old days of we have got you graduated out of high school are done.

Hari Sreenivasan:
According to Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, 60 percent of high school students already meet the graduation requirement.

Janice Jackson:
The other 40 percent, that’s the group that we’re most concerned about. What we’re trying to do is ensure that the students who need it the most are the ones that are receiving the support.

Hari Sreenivasan:

There’s going to be people that say, listen, you just moved the goal line for what constitutes a diploma. A child has worked their 12 years, they should get this piece of paper without having to tell you what two more years looks like.

Rahm Emanuel:
I didn’t move the goalposts. The economy did. Companies today are looking for somebody with a minimum of something post-high school.

Hari Sreenivasan:
Critics of Chicago’s plan question if cash-strapped schools will be able to provide the support and guidance a student needs to meet the new requirement.

Kristy Brooks is a school counselor and represents counselors for the Chicago Teachers Union.

Kristy Brooks:
My main concerns are that we’re not resourcing that plan. We need more counselors in our schools, and we need funds for that.

Hari Sreenivasan:
Brooks wants the city to limit the student-to-counselor ratio and stop asking school counselors to perform duties that are outside their role as advisers.

Kristy Brooks:
Chicago Public Schools ranks 28th out of 30, on the very low end of counselor-to-student ratios. Principals have to allow counselors to actually do counseling work with kids. We can’t be pulled to be counting tests all the time. We can’t be pulled to do recess duty and lunch duty three hours a day.

Mayor Emanuel has been under fire by teachers and neighborhoods for closing dozens of schools.

Hari Sreenivasan:
Do you have enough counselors?

Janice Jackson:
I don’t think it’s a situation where you need more counselors. I think we have to look at some of the duties that counselors have, and maybe relieve them of some of those.

Hari Sreenivasan:
This spring, the mayor tapped employees from its vast community college system to assist counselors and students with the new requirement.

Rahm Emanuel:
By integrating the community college system, we’re ensuring an integration that kids do not fall between the gap between high school and graduation and whatever else they do in life.

Hari Sreenivasan:
But some ask if the new advisers have the qualifications needed.

Kristy Brooks:
What are their credentials? Are they certified? School counselors hold master’s degrees and licenses. Do they know our kids? We get to know our kids.

Hari Sreenivasan:
At North-Grand High School, principal Emily Feltes made the decision to hire more qualified school counselors. But, to do so, she had to forgo some classroom technology, like computers and smartboards.

Emily Feltes:
The ratio is lower, and we have a full-time college coach. Not all schools are as fortunate or are in that shape.

Hari Sreenivasan:
And at North-Grand, some freshmen already had plans for their future.

Jayvon Cooper:
Once I get my degree, to be a professional basketball player.

Sandra Valencuele:
To be a culinary chef.

Ashley Carrasquillo:
Study to be a veterinarian.

Hari Sreenivasan:
But others remained skeptical that the new requirement was a good fit for all students.

Cherveris Thomlinson:
At our age, we’re still young, and still figuring out what we want to do with our life, so I think we should have more time to figure out where we want to go with our futures.

Hari Sreenivasan:
What’s the scenario where a student can’t meet these requirements and doesn’t get a diploma?

Janice Jackson:
That — I’m telling you that scenario won’t happen. I’m not saying this just out of hope or aspiration. We intervene before it’s too late.

Click here for link to the PBS NewsHour espisode.

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