Three years ago, Chicago Public Schools started setting the stage for a massive experiment: Would requiring all seniors to create a post-graduation plan before commencement day give students more direction in the next phase of their lives?
The idea was hatched by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, making Chicago the first big city school district to go this route. At the time, he said school districts needed to go beyond senior year. “A high school diploma,” he said, “doesn’t cut it anymore.”
And now, in the middle of a pandemic, the requirement is going into effect. Chicago’s current seniors, who are finishing high school remotely, are the first to face this new graduation hurdle. CPS leaders insist it’s vital, now more than ever, that school counselors talk with students about their plans.
“We wanted to really make sure that we were doing all we could from a policy perspective to ensure that students get all the support they possibly can around thinking through what their path forward is going to be,” said Michael Deuser, chief of college and career success for the school district.
The school district doesn’t have figures yet on how many seniors are on track to meet the requirement. But counselors said getting students over the finish line remotely is tough. They said verifying plans — be it a spot at a higher education institution, the military or a job — at a distance is difficult. They are also concerned that the focus is on paperwork, rather than ensuring the plan will stick.
At the same time, they said being in touch with seniors, especially at this time, is vital, though they said they would be doing it even without a requirement. And several students said having this requirement has made a difference.
“They don’t want us to just be out there, you know, just wandering … with no real plan in mind,” said Micheal Wiley, a senior at Catalyst-Maria High School in Chicago Lawn on the Southwest Side.
Is there enough support out there?
A big question when Emanuel announced the requirement in 2017 was whether the school district would provide the necessary support to students to help them make plans. If not, some worried it could be a barrier to graduation.
Since then, the number of counselors in Chicago high schools has increased by about 9%. Currently, there is one counselor for every 270 students. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1.
Dana Fairchild is a counselor at Phoenix Military Academy in East Garfield Park on the West Side. She is spending long days on Google Meets trying to get students to verify their plans. She has been a counselor for 20 years and said she has always tried really hard to make sure she knows what students are doing after high school.
She said she felt like the ramp up to the graduation requirement — which is called Learn. Plan. Succeed. — gave her ample time to understand how it would work and what was needed.
But she said not being in school with students has created a layer of difficulty. So far, about half of the 110 seniors have met the requirement. The deadline is in less than two weeks.
She said the school has been in touch with all the 110 seniors, but not all of them have been in touch with the counseling department, which consists of two counselors.
“Before I could just run out of my office, up to the kids class, knock on the door and say it’s an emergency. … I need this kid. We got to make this decision,” she said. “But now we’re just struggling to even find our kids sometimes.”
Then, once the student has a verification, she has to lead them through a process of uploading acceptance letters and answering some questions.
Deuser said he has been hearing about these challenges from counselors. He noted there is a waiver available if it doesn’t look like the student can meet the requirement. As of mid-May, he had not received any waivers.
Deuser also said the school district wants these plans to be more than just about compliance. He wants them to be solid plans that give young people a path forward.
Fairchild said that is also her concern. In any given year, summer melt happens, meaning plans change, she said. Now with the pandemic, it could be worse.
Arnoldo Telles, a senior at Mather High School on the North Side, said this is why he thinks the school district should have foregone the requirement, especially this year.
Telles said he had planned to go to college and study psychology, but if the stay-at-home order is not lifted soon, he may change his mind. He said he is dealing with a lot of issues at home and worries this is not a good time to go away.
“You are pushing the pressure on us,” he said. “At the same time, we know what to do. We know what is right for us.”
But many outside organizations who work with students to make their post-college plans said an outside push can be helpful.
Dominique Jordan Turner is CEO of Chicago Scholars, which works with low-income students who aim to be the first in their families to go to college. She also thinks the requirement is more important than ever. She is concerned young people will reconsider college plans because of the pandemic.
“What we know to be true is that 30 million people are out of work,” Jordan Turner said. “So the way that I see it, our students will be competing with 30 million people who are more experienced, more seasoned, more degrees. I think now is the time to double down, to say, ‘You’re not going to opt out of the system, you’re going to keep going.’ College gives you that space to not only grow but to get that degree that’s going to help you compete out there and to continue to break that cycle of poverty.”
“Have a plan in mind”
Two Chicago Public Schools students said they’re feeling grateful to have a plan and the support needed to make it happen.
Wiley, the senior at Catalyst-Maria, said his school counselor has been intentional about making sure he sticks to his plan.
He said he receives communication from his counselor nearly every day making sure everything is on track. He also is in contact with his chosen college, Adrian College in Michigan, which assures him the fall semester will start as expected.
Wiley said he thinks it’s important for high schools to be focused on making sure students know where they are going after graduation.
“They’ve always told us to have a plan in mind,” Wiley said.
Makayla Navas was at risk of being a student without direction. A senior at North-Grand High School in Humboldt Park on the Northwest Side, she was uncertain and confused about what she wanted to do for part of her senior year.
But she has a mentor from an outside organization, who told her to be calm and to really think about what she wanted.
This school year, she visited some colleges, but she said she found them big and intimidating. She then took a field trip to Tricoci University of Beauty Culture in Chicago, and she loved that it was small and intimate.
“I like to make men and women feel pretty,” she said.
She decided to go to Tricoci and recently completed the paperwork to fulfill the graduation requirement.
“It was a good distraction to stop thinking about the [coronavirus] and all that,” she said.
Navas said it made her think about all the good things coming up in the future.