Graduation Rates on the Rise in Chicago Public Schools

Building on years of improvement, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) reported a higher graduation rate in the last school year, say Noreen S. Ahmen-Ullah and John Byrne of the Chicago Tribune.

To be exact, the five-year graduation rate was 69%, 4 points higher than the previous year.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel bragged about the increase at a meeting he attended with schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett.  The mayor will be running for re-election in February, with education representing an important campaign issue.  This is especially true if Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, decides to run against him.

“Two years, back-to-back, 4 percent graduation rate (increase). This wasn’t a one-year fluke, a statistical error. This is a journey not to a single destination, though we do have a goal: a hundred percent college-ready, a hundred percent college-bound, no child left behind,” Emanuel said to applause from a room full of faith leaders.

This represents the highest two-year increase in the district’s history.  The CPS graduation rate encompasses five years and measures the percentage of students who enter ninth grade at the beginning of the 2009 school year and graduated this past summer.  Educators say that policy changes can make a difference in graduation rates across time.  Some believe that the No Child Left Behind law has made a positive difference in graduation rates nationwide.

“We’re seeing an upward trend in graduation rates over the last 10 years,” said Christopher Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes the magazine Education Week. “One reason why we’re seeing this is greater improvement in black and Latino students. We’re seeing vast improvements at faster rates.”

He added that better tracking methods have allowed schools to identify students who risk dropping out and to provide ways to keep them in school and to graduate. CPS plans to prepare students well to make the transition to ninth grade.  Last year officials started a mentoring program for eighth-graders to have an adult who will help with academics and keep them motivated to stay in school.

As of now, the ninth grade class of CPS are on track to have a 84.1% graduation rate, up 2.6% from last year.  The mayor’s office was quick to point out that the freshman on-track rate has increased 11.5% since he took office in 2011, according to a report from WLS-TV Chicago.

In an article by Progress Illinois, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett made a statement.

“Across the district, we continue to see progress that suggests the serious commitment we are making to students is paying off,” CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. “We will not be satisfied until all of our students are graduating, but by working to make sure all freshman are on track to graduate, we continue to drive student success in an encouraging upward direction.”

In an opinion piece by Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett for the Chicago Sun-Times, the two touted the improved graduation rates for CPS students and added that more CPS graduates are going on to college and post-secondary education.  Last year, 57.2% enrolled in college, an increase of 1.2%.  They went on to say that:

• The average composite ACT score for CPS was 18.0, a record level for CPS.

• Thirty thousand CPS kindergarten students are attending school for a full day.

• 75% of 3-4 year-olds in Chicago who live in low-income families have access to quality preschool programs.

• CPS has gone from having the shortest school day in the nation to a full seven-hours for elementary children and 7 .5 hours for high school, which adds up to 2.5  years of additional instruction by the time the student graduates.

• The STEM curriculum has been instituted in 19 CPS schools.

• CPS has expanded its Advance Placement classes into new schools and has increased the number of courses available.

• CPS has partnered with City Colleges of Chicago to offer an early college option for thousands of students.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment, says Gapers Block journalist Emily Brosious.  The Chicago Students Union (CSU), formed in 2013 in response to school closures, rallied to do away with the 1995 Daley administration decision to end elected school councils and put CPS under the mayor’s control.

The students want that system ended.  They want a democratically-elected school board, along with student-prioritized funding.  They were joined by Democratic candidate for the 39th Illinois House District, Will Guzzardi.  They want their school board and officials elected, just like the majority of Illinois school districts and the majority of public school systems in the country.