Just in time for back to school, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced the class of 2016’s graduation rate: 73.5 percent, a new high. The district says neighborhood high schools improved their graduation rates by 4.6 percentage points over last year.
On its face, this could be just the good news the district says it is. As the district notes, the graduation rate of 73.5 percent closely tracks the recent graduates’ on-track rate as freshmen: 74.5 percent.
CPS also points to recent improvements in attendance and achievement in math and reading, which could be playing into the increased graduation rates.
Or maybe the news is murkier than it appears on the surface.
Looking Closer at the Data
CPS didn’t mention another potential driver behind the higher numbers—its recent expansion of contracts with for-profit alternative programs, known as Options Schools.
A 2015 investigation by WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago found that students were graduating from quick-hit online programs, yet received diplomas from either the last school they attended or the neighborhood high school near where they live.
In 2015, the district walked back its graduation rates in response to another investigation, which found neighborhood schools rampantly fudging their numbers, largely by miscoding dropouts as transfers to other programs.
But there’s no accounting for the possibility of watered-down diplomas issued by academically lightweight alternative programs.
What’s extra frustrating here is CPS already has a longstanding charter serving returning dropouts: Youth Connection Charter School. Last year, 1,300 students graduated from Youth Connection’s 19 school campuses, also an all-time high, says Sheila Venson, the charter network’s executive director.
Venson says the Options Schools came on strong at first. “They put some of them right around the corner from where we have a school,” she notes. “That affected our enrollment.”
But Youth Connection Charter’s higher-quality programs have lured some of them back, she says. Elsewhere, “they’re not getting as much structure as they need.”
Fighting for Students, Money and Resources
Meanwhile, the district’s new student-based budgeting process has put neighborhood high schools and the charter network in direct competition for students—and money.
For many years, neighborhood schools have often referred struggling students to Youth Connection’s community-based alternative schools. Many of these alternative schools have been serving young people for decades, long before they banded together to form a charter.
But now, Venson added, “Principals are saying, ‘I would [encourage a student to try Youth Connection], but I can’t. We wish CPS would allow some incentive for principals to make a right choice.’”
As a result, Venson says the students who are coming are “extremely needy, much needier than we’ve ever seen,” bringing with them intense mental health issues, including repeated exposure to trauma.
This new reality, coupled with Chicago’s surging violence, has stretched schools to their limit. “We need more mental health resources and more social work resources.”
Sounds like it is time for the district to look deeper into what is driving up graduation rates.
Is it simply smarter interventions on the front end of high school? Or is the real driver various ways to game the system on the back end of the high school experience?
Either way, it’s time for the district to look deeper into the quality of programs serving the city’s most vulnerable students and to adjust its investments accordingly.