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Chicago’s new requirement for high school students: No plan, no diploma

File: Graduates

By Ray Sanchez

CHICAGO — A product of Chicago’s South Side, DeAvion Gillarm will be the first in his family to attend college.

“I always had a plan,” said Gillarm, a Morgan Park High School graduate headed to Lincoln College next month. “You’re not going to be successful without a plan.”

Under a controversial new requirement, starting in 2020, students hoping to graduate from a public high school in Chicago must provide evidence they, too, have a plan for the future: either acceptance to college or a gap-year program, a trade apprenticeship, military enlistment or a job offer.

“It will help students think about what they want to do next in life,” said Gillarm, who wants to study exercise science in college.

But not everyone is sold on a plan that Mayor Rahm Emanuel said will steer every graduating senior in the nation’s third-largest school system on “a path toward a successful life.”

Chicago Republican Party chairman Chris Cleveland, the parent of a public school student, said the Democratic mayor should instead focus on reducing a public high school dropout rate of nearly 30%. He questioned how the cash-strapped school system will pay for additional guidance counselors to help students develop post-secondary plans.

“How can they deny a high school kid a diploma he or she has earned?” Cleveland asked. “It’s all well and good that they’re asking kids to think about their futures, but denying a kid a diploma because they didn’t get into college or get a job is absurd.”

‘A pre-K to college model’

The Chicago Board of Education approved the plan, known as “Learn. Plan. Succeed,” in May. With 381,000 students, Chicago Public Schools would become the first large urban district to implement such a requirement, according to city officials.

Public high school graduation requirements currently include science courses and 40 hours of community service.

“Yes, it is a requirement, but we’re going to support you to also ensure you have a post-high school educational plan,” Emanuel said during a National Press Club event last month.

“The idea that you are going to actually have a post-high school educational plan and all of a sudden we’re putting a burden on our kids’ backs — I guarantee you the kids in Chicago will be better prepared for the future than any other child. Every other school system today leaves it to chance.”

About 60% of district students have post-secondary plans when they graduate, Emanuel said.

“I cannot in good conscience as a mayor allow the other 40% to not have a plan that the economy will require of them later in life,” he said. “Will achieving this require more of us? Yes, of course. But as a parent I would never leave it to chance that my kids have a plan post-high school, and as mayor I refuse the notion that the future of any child in this city should be treated any differently.”

Despite a high school graduation rate of about 73%, the number of Chicago students going on to college has not been promising. An estimated 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 a 2016 study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.

“A K-12 model was relevant 10, 15, 20 years ago,” Emanuel said in April when announcing the initiative. “The city of Chicago is moving toward a pre-K to college model.”

‘A good plan on paper’

The school system laid off nearly 500 teachers and more than 1,000 support staff in 2015, but Janice Jackson, chief education officer for the public schools, said the new initiative will not place additional strain on the workload of guidance counselors.

Still, the district and city officials are working to raise about $1 million to pay for eight additional college and career coaches.

“This requires a mind shift,” Jackson said. “We are shifting hearts and minds about what children in urban school districts can do.”

Jackson noted that the new requirement would be waived for students with “extenuating circumstances.”

“The population here in Chicago is extremely diverse, and while many of our kids have struggles to overcome to be successful in school, we wanted to make sure we were taking those things into consideration,” she said without elaborating.

But critics are not convinced.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the plan was poorly thought out and would place additional burdens on counselors.

“Sounds like a good plan on paper, but I also wonder what do kids know what they want to do at or accomplish at 17 years old,” Lewis said.

“I can’t imagine you do all the work you do to graduate that you get your diploma withheld from you.”

CNN’s Jennifer Goelz, Brad Parks and Janet DiGiacomo contributed to this report.