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Emanuel Brings Back High School Program He Cut During First Term

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is bringing back a successful freshman orientation program he cut during his first term.

The roughly $6 million price tag for what’s called Freshman Connection will be paid for with money from new taxes on tobacco products, including cigars and chewing tobacco. The mayor’s office estimates prices will increase $2 to $4 on those products.

The Freshman Connection program was eliminated in 2011, the first year Emanuel took office. In 2012, 100 coordinators for the program were eliminated to free up money for principal discretion. Some principals decided to use their discretionary money to keep it going.

Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson was the principal of Westinghouse College Prep at the time.

“I found it extremely valuable,” Jackson said of Freshman Connection. “There was one year when we didn’t offer it and we saw a big difference in the students.”

For example, Jackson said, writing was a focus of the week-long summer orientation at Westinghouse and you could see a “tremendous difference” in the writing skills of students who had attended the summer program and those who had not.

Studies have shown that freshman year is an important factor in determining whether a student will graduate from high school.  

The mayor’s office says the tobacco tax also will help CPS target students who are at risk of dropping out before they even reach high school.

A press release from the mayor’s office says the programs “are part of a larger menu of efforts that will help CPS reach a graduation rate of 85 percent by 2019.”

WBEZ has reported on the district’s aggressive efforts to improve graduation rates -- including with Freshman Connection.

Those efforts include individual principals going door-to-door to re-enroll students, to the rapid expansion of for-profit, online alternative schools where students can earn a regular high school diploma in half the time.

Perhaps most troubling, WBEZ and the Better Government Association found many high schools intentionally mislabeled hundreds of dropouts over the past four years to make their graduation rates look better. Months later, the district officially lowered its graduation rates from the last four years.

Even so, Emanuel is promising to boost graduation rates another 15 percent over the next four years -- to 85 percent by the end of his second term.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.

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