Incoming high school freshman will soon face a new graduation requirement thanks to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: provide the Chicago Public School District with evidence of an acceptance letter to a university, community college, apprenticeship or trade school, internship, or the armed services, or you won’t receive your diploma upon graduation—whether you’ve passed all your classes, or not.
Members of the Chicago Board of Education are likely to approve of Emanuel’s post-high school scheme, known as “Learn, Plan, Succeed,” because they are appointed by Emanuel.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has come out in strong opposition against the new graduation requirement. Communications manager Ronnie Reese expressed the union’s disapproval, citing “self-inflicted budget problems” which will leave most high schools without enough counselors “who would be called upon to assist students with plans for their future.”
In February, the district of Chicago sued the Illinois State Board of Education over what it describes as “separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois.” The suit further alleges Chicago Public School students, specifically those who are black and Hispanic, are treated “as second-class children, relegated to the back of the state’s education funding bus.”
“The reality is that a child’s race continues to dictate whether she or he will receive a good education or something far short. Chicago’s predominantly African American and Hispanic children still suffer from stark educational inequalities,” the suit argued. Despite this, Emanuel proposes another hurdle for Chicago students, one that ignores the impact of race, class, their intersections, and the cost of higher education.
Lauren Kaufman, a 28-year-old vocational skills teacher to students with disabilities, ages 16-22 years-old, works at Southside Occupational Academy, a specialized transition center in Englewood. It is on the south side of Chicago.
Kaufman told Shadowproof that Emanuel’s “Learn, Plan, Succeed,” program is a waste of time. “I had kids who couldn’t read beyond a 1st grade level, couldn’t write a sentence, but would ask me to help them finish their college applications online. They couldn’t navigate the website on their own. They didn’t know their own address. So like, cool, your school can claim ‘100% FAFSA completion’ and claim that ‘every student has applied to at least 5 colleges!’—They’re already doing that. It has been an undue burden for our students for a while now.”
(Note: FAFSA is an application for federal aid for students planning to attend college. All U.S. high school students are expected to fill it out, for the most part.)
She described Emanuel’s education program as being part of what she calls “College and Career Readiness culture” which has secured a foothold in CPS schools, “especially ones in high-poverty areas.” It is “meaningless and wasteful,” she added. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to continually encourage that, especially in the form of this ridiculous mandate.”
Kaufman, who previously worked at two traditional Chicago neighborhood high schools, Hubbard and Marshall, has observed students that she teaches, those that are in special education programs, and low income students, “have absolutely nothing to gain from [Emanuel’s] mandate, and they’ve already been losing to College and Career Readiness culture by being forced to take ‘college prep’ classes when they don’t want to go to college or aren’t able to do college level coursework.”
She has also taught academically inclined students “who just don’t want to go to college,” who find that it isn’t for them, and those who have career opportunities by way of family members and other informal methods of training.
There are very few vocational programs left in Chicago public schools and limited partnerships with work and training programs. Kids don’t seek them out because “they don’t know how and because college has been shoved down their throats from an early age,” Kaufman said. Students also face predatory for-profit colleges, which put low-income families and students into situations where they feel pressured to enroll, and this pressure is arguably compounded by the influence of family and school administrators.
Aside from his latest program targeting high school students, Kaufman emphasized the fact that Emanuel has been antagonistic towards teachers since his inauguration.
“He literally said ‘fuck you’ to our union president, so he was never negotiating with us in good faith. Extending the school day without compensating us for it was a problem, especially now that supposedly we have no money left to finish out the year and we’re looking at a 3-week long furlough. Like, dude, you really think that adding 45 extra minutes to the school day is gonna fix the systemic issues with your school district? But of course, he’s never really seen what actually goes on in our schools.”
“It’s been clear from the beginning,” Kaufman said, “that he has no interest in genuinely trying to understand what the issues are.”
“Instead he just rides the neoliberal line all the way down, putting shitty people in positions of power so they can gut the district by signing ridiculous contracts with private companies (like SUPES and Aramark), encouraging the expansion of charter schools and the closing of public schools without any consideration for neighborhood dynamics.”
Kaufman wants those outside Chicago’s education system to understand how deep and systematic the impact that poverty, lack of resources, family instability, and other issues have on their students.
“I think a lot of people still buy into this neoliberal school reform fantasy, where Young Dedicated Teachers accept No Excuses and Raise Test Scores Triumphantly while Cultivating Grit and Perseverance among their students. That does not happen.”
Kaufman’s last year at Marshall High School was the fourth year of the “turnaround” process, during which the local administration recklessly pumped money into the school, fired the old staff, and “hired a bunch of young fools like myself to work their asses off and complete a lot of compliance paperwork. Then they slowly tapered off the funding.”
“I don’t ever want to work in an environment again where my kids are coming into my class starving and smelling like pee because they’re homeless or telling me that they feel stupid because they’re 18 and never learned how to read. But we have to have a neat agenda and objective and ACT prep squeezed in there, in the midst of all of this. Not that kids can’t learn or can’t benefit from that structure, but it was so inflexible, and people were always breathing down our necks. Yet, we kept cutting school counselors, psychologists, art, and music classes.”
“We’ve been hiring data analysts to sit in our school on Microsoft Excel and try to figure out how to optimize our ACT scores,” Kaufman shared. “We had 100% FAFSA completion and met certain numbers for college acceptances, but how many students from Marshall can succeed in college, realistically?”
“Marshall should have operated more like a therapeutic school based on the needs of its population, but instead we continued to de-fund all of the social-emotional supports in favor of Career and College Readiness bullshit. Like, congrats, instead of getting a 15 on the ACT, our students are getting a 17, big fucking whoop once they graduate and die on the streets because they were given no realistic alternative to that lifestyle.”
Kaufman argued what is truly needed are vocational programs at the high school level, stronger connections between Chicago Public Schools and community service organizations, better access to mental health services, and meaningful curriculum that reflects the actual needs of the students they serve.
Since working at a more specialized school where teachers have the freedom and the funding to implement more innovative programs for their students, Kaufman has found it can be done, and “when it is done, it’s truly amazing.”
“My students cook, make belts and pens and bowls, serve teachers and fellow students at the student-run cafe, go to work during the day, make pottery, et cetera, et cetera. They thrive,” Kaufman said. “We need more of this. Educators can create and cultivate these very positive environments if they’re given the resources and the freedom to do so, but it’s so clear that no one values our expertise, and it’s incredibly demoralizing.”