Chicago Public Schools’ official graduation rate is now 73 percent, up 3 percentage points from last year — and a remarkable 17 percentage points since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011.
The graduation rate tracks how many freshmen get a diploma from a Chicago public school five years after they start high school.
District officials credit an initiative in which schools focus on getting students through freshman year as a driving force in increasing the graduation rate.
The district’s education chief Janice Jackson also pointed out that neighborhood high schools, which once dragged down the graduation rate, have seen some of the biggest increases.
That’s somewhat surprising because neighborhood high schools also have been hit hard over the past decade as they have lost students and, year after year, had to deal with big budget cuts.
Jackson suggested that maybe smaller school populations are behind the grad rate improvements, that perhaps teachers and others have time to pay more attention to individual students and shepherd them through.
Another possibility is that more students are participating in online recovery or alternative schools. Jackson said she could not say how many of the students graduating from traditional or other schools had completed credits at one of the district’s alternative schools.
In recent years, CPS has added more alternative schools, some of them run by for-profit companies that offer mostly online learning. A WBEZ investigation found that students at these schools can sometimes complete credits that usually take an entire year to earn in a matter of weeks.
Even though students earn credits at alternative schools, their graduation is counted toward the rate at the school where they began their freshman year. Most students begin their freshman year at a traditional high school.
Either way, the graduation rate is good news for some schools that have been struggling for a while. Marshall High School in East Garfield Park on the West Side, for example, has a graduation rate that went from 40 percent last year to nearly 58 percent this year.
Marshall High School has won two rounds of federal School Improvement Grants since 2011 and, through them, got an additional $9 million.
But its student population has dropped from about 800 in 2011 to less than 400 last year. And as the last of that federal grant runs out this year, Marshall High School’s budget is being cut by $1.4 million.
Kelvyn Park in the Hermosa neighborhood also saw an impressive graduation rate increase, going from 52 percent last year to nearly 70 percent. But Kelvyn Park also is seeing its budget slashed this year, as its student population decreased.
Clemente High School in West Town, Gage Park High School in Gage Park and Hope High School in Englewood also saw jumps in their graduation rates.
Also worth noting: Since 2011 the actual number of students getting diplomas only jumped significantly in 2013, when it grew by 1,329. In every year since, the number of graduates went up by between 80 and 130 students.
This year, 20,438 students got diplomas, only 122 more than last year.
There are two key reasons why the graduation rate went up while the actual increase in graduates is small. One, the pool is smaller as freshman enrollment dwindles.
The other is that CPS removes students from the group of freshmen being tracked for graduation if they transfer out. A WBEZ investigation found last year that schools were counting hundreds of students who dropped out as transfers.
The district admitted its data was flawed and later lowered its graduation rate.
But this year, the district says 10 percent of the students transferred and therefore were not included in the rate. Ten percent is high compared with previous years.
Education chief Jackson insisted that the data was double checked and that school clerks are now better trained to report data accurately.
Also, the district says its figures are conservative. It points out that the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research and the Illinois State Board of Education show higher graduation rates for CPS students.