Analysis: Lessons to Be Learned From Chicago’s Rising Graduation Rate

Something pretty incredible is happening right here in Chicago that not many are paying attention to, most notably in the city’s public charter schools.

Two decades ago, Chicago’s first charters opened their doors to improve the dire state of the city’s public school system. At that time, only 52.4 percent of students attending Chicago public schools were graduating from high school by the age of 19.

Back then, many doubted that charters could significantly impact students’ educational outcomes. Yet the educators leading these new public schools believed that all children deserved the opportunity to achieve at the highest level — not just a privileged few. They were determined to provide families in communities throughout Chicago — especially the most underserved — with access to high-quality schools that would prepare their children for the future.

Nearly two decades later, the charter sector has proven what many thought to be unattainable, as more students are now graduating from the city’s charter high schools than ever before.

Last month, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) released its 2017 graduation rates. Chicago’s charter high schools’ five-year graduation rate jumped nearly three percentage points to 81.6 percent, an all-time high. That means that 81.6 percent of students who started high school five years ago have graduated. The district, too, has seen improvements and is at its highest rate, 77.5 percent.

Charter high schools across Chicago have focused on graduation rates for years, assigning additional counselors and adding wraparound supports to help students struggling during their high school years. In fact, in the 20 years since the city’s charter high schools first opened their doors, enrollment has grown to more than 28,000 – more than a quarter of the city’s enrollment in grades 9 through 12 – yet they are getting students into college at a rate 20 percent higher than other public high schools in Chicago.

Contrary to those who claim charter success is a zero-sum game, the facts demonstrate that all high schools ultimately benefit.

Rather than fixating on the type of institutions that are serving our students, we should be comforted that thousands of young adults are attending high-quality schools of any type in a city that is successfully preparing them for the future.

Andrew Broy is the president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools; he previously worked as both a public school teacher and civil rights lawyer.

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