Mayor Emanuel wrong about new Chicago Public Schools graduation requirement

Today Mayor Emanuel proposed a new graduation requirement for Chicago Public Schools high-school students:  “proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a ‘gap-year’ program . . . [or have] a job or a job offer,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

Mayor Emanuel, however, did not mention funding schools to hire more staff to make this happen.

As part of the CPS School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP), the criteria for evaluating schools, high schools already must work to enroll students in college.

While the new requirement (which still needs to be tested for legality according to an expert quoted in the Chicago Tribune article) sounds beneficial, the mayor’s proposal ignores the social and economic issues affecting most of today’s Chicago high-school graduates.

The mayor does not mention the high cost of college, for example. When I started DePaul University in 1990 and lived at home, I worked as an assistant manager at Burger King. I made around $5.00 an hour. DePaul’s tuition my freshman year? Approximately $8,000. I paid my own tuition with a little financial aid, my part-time job (which was full-time in the summer), and student loans.

Today, DePaul’s tuition is approximately $36,000 without room and board–$28,000 more than I paid in 1990.  Today’s non-management Burger King employee makes about $5.50 more an hour than I did 27 years ago with Chicago’s current minimum wage.

How are today’s 18-year-olds going to afford the high cost of college with that?

Critics against the $15 minimum wage movement don’t believe people should get paid that much for flipping burgers (we flamed broiled, by the way). But fast food restaurants make millions in profit.

Furthermore, those fast food jobs were the entry points to better-paying jobs—especially for those of us who aspired to complete college.

Low wages make paying tuition at Chicago colleges impossible. Even if CPS graduates live at home, Chicago housing is expensive. A recent article in Fortune Magazine highlighted how black and Latino communities nationwide spend almost half their incomes on rent.  In Chicago, they have to pay $1500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment near UIC.

While the STAR Scholarship provides free tuition to CPS graduates at Chicago’s community colleges after they receive a financial aid package, and while undocumented students who qualify benefit the most, the first class of STAR Scholars included only about 1,100 students.  Furthermore, research finds that sending Chicago’s graduates to colleges with low graduation rates–like the City Colleges–does not bode well for students.

Chicago’s high-school graduates also need mentorship into and through college.

When Starbucks offered baristas an opportunity to earn a college degree at no cost or at a 22% discount through an online program at Arizona State University, the coffee mega-chain thought that, for sure, thousands of its employees in over 7,000 stores would enroll. The May 2015 Atlantic article presented an unexpected outcome:

“By October, when classes began, 5,289 employees from all 50 states had started an application to Arizona State, and about half of them had submitted one. Of those, 2,121 had been admitted—an acceptance rate of 85 percent, close to the 90 percent rate for Arizona State’s online applicants overall—and 1,012 had enrolled for the fall semester.”

The article highlights what so many first-generation college graduates know from life experience: “There is a tension between making college accessible and making graduation likely.”

Starbucks employees, the article goes on, needed more than an opportunity to get into college. They needed mentorship and guidance to work through the complexities of pursuing a college education.

I look back and I’m still amazed I made it through DePaul. I knew no one with a college degree. Although I never struggled academically, I struggled to figure out a system designed for people far outside of my working-class, child-of-immigrants reality. I don’t know if I can explain how I persisted.

Honestly, if I had found some mentorship or guidance, I wouldn’t have become a teacher. I just went with what I knew: I majored in English and minored in Spanish. And took a few classes I really didn’t need or care for. But, hey, what did I know?

What Chicago Public Schools graduates need is a network they can tap into to help make sense of the college experience or the working world—someone ideally at their old high school who can help with FAFSA or with figuring out how do deal with conflict at work.

Because when a low-income student’s mental energy is spent on making ends or figuring out a system that does not advise them well or at all . . . well . . . getting into college and getting through college become distinct experiences.

Getting into the trade unions isn’t easier. I helped one student figure out the path to apply to an electricians’ union. He was sent back on his first attempt because the white guy he spoke with didn’t believe he was a legal resident. I coached this student to face the racism he wasn’t expecting.

He tested. But he’s on an incredibly long wait list.

I know another high-school graduate with a deplorable academic and behavior record. But an inside connection got him into another trade union.

The other part that’s important to mention is the financial mindset among too many minority families that we, as a community, need to challenge. I’ve seen families dish out thousands for quinceañeras—but when the daughter applies to college, there’s no money for tuition.

Other students and their families raise eyebrows and shake heads at the mention of student loans. There are traps. But even when I tell students I graduated with $15,000 in loans (not bad considering my economic situation) and that my payment eventually became less than $100 a month, they scoff and say, “I’m not getting loans.”  Without loans, I wouldn’t have made it through college.

Yet minority families will accept “high-risk, high-priced products” when buying homes.  (And let’s not get started on used-car loans.)

Mayor Emanuel’s proposal isn’t as impressive as he’d like it to seem. When CPS graduates already automatically gain admission to the City Colleges of Chicago and when getting into the military isn’t complicated, our mayor and district leaders need to confront the societal and economic factors that prevent our graduates from breaking through the obstacles that keep them from rising socially, academically, and economically with a Chicago Public Schools diploma.

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