The 2018 Chicago Public Schools graduation rate is 78.2 percent — the highest it’s ever been, but only slightly better than last year.
This means Mayor Rahm Emanuel won’t reach his goal of an 85 percent graduation rate by the end of his second term in May, 2019.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson noted the 59.3 percent graduation rate when Emanuel was first elected in 2011.
“This is a far cry from the past where CPS students were — about as likely to drop out of school as they were to graduate,” she said.
But this is the first year since Emanuel’s election that the graduation rate has only inched up. It has climbed 3 percentage points or more each year since 2011.
It is unrealistic to expect such impressive growth every year, said Jenny Nagaoka, deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
“It takes a long time to improve graduation rates,” she said. “Slow and steady progress overtime is encouraging. The fact that it continues to increase is reflective of positive things that are happening within the district.”
Jackson said she thinks the school district will eventually hit that 85 percent mark. She said the students showing the most gains are also the ones the school district can push to improve.
Black and Latino male students saw bigger increases in graduation rates than other groups, data shows. But they are also the least likely to graduate. Jackson said she is urging her staff to focus on these students.
“We have to see gains that are exponential if we really want to close the achievement gap and reach our goals, she said.
Five high schools continue to graduate 50 percent or less of their students. One of those schools, Hope, is being phased out by 2021.
But there are also several high schools that used to graduate well under half of their students that have improved greatly. In 2011, Fenger High School on the Far South Side of the city had one of the lowest graduation rates with only 34 percent getting a diploma.
Every year since, it has seen an increase. And this year, the graduation rate is 61.4 percent.
“Those are the schools that still have a long way to go and are still under-resourced in many ways given the type of effort it will take to really support their students,” Nagaoka said. “Finding out and supporting the places like that, that are showing progress, is really important.”
The graduation rate reflects the number of freshmen who graduate within five years. Students who transfer out of the school district or go to prison or die are taken out of the count.
In 2015, WBEZ found that thousands of students were being mislabeled as transfers when they should have been counted as dropouts. In response, the school district reviewed its records and adjusted graduation rates downward.
About 9 percent of the original group of freshmen in this year’s rate were removed.
Jackson said the school district’s graduation rate is conservative and that she is confident it is correct.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.