In 1909, when Daniel Burnham issued his Plan of Chicago, city schools bustled with 300,000 children. Before the first day of school that year, the Tribune declared: "The children of all the world … the child of the tenements and the child of millionaire's row, all will be there when the bell rings, an army of potential citizens whose possibilities stagger the imagination and a goodly portion of whose life training begins with the school year of 1909-10."
An army of potential citizens whose possibilities stagger the imagination.
Every year an army of high school graduates marches across the stage, beams for the cameras, bids farewell to classmates and ventures from Chicago Public Schools into What Comes Next.
That's an army — 19,905 strong last spring — we see and celebrate. These graduates decamp for college, training programs or, far less likely, jobs.
But there is another army, half as large, that risks defeat. In the Class of 2013, what Chicagoans didn't see onstage were 9,310 empty chairs — one for every CPS student who had entered ninth grade but dropped out along the way. This army deserts classrooms and scatters into Chicago's neighborhoods and streets.
Those young people don't disappear. Probe what plagues Chicago — violence, unemployment, poverty, teen pregnancy — and you find former students who fell behind and dropped out. Some were failed by parents, teachers, principals. Some failed themselves. The repercussions eclipse a family, a neighborhood. Chicago's swollen Dropout Nation extracts a steep toll on every Chicagoan. It shapes whether streets are safe, whether employers flock here or flee. It shapes Chicago's quality of life, its place in the world, now and in the future. Young people who drop out aren't ready to take good jobs, to support families, to become citizens who build Chicago into the next generation.
Last week this page launched a series of editorials to draft a new Plan of Chicago. The concept: Chicago faces education failures, joblessness, crime and other intertwined challenges that imperil the city's livability, its future. In this and forthcoming installments, we define the challenges. Then it's your turn: You — readers, organizations — help solve them. The accompanying Request for Proposals explains how.
Among the daunting challenges this city faces: its ill-educated students. Chicago schools do many things right. How can the city build a system that broadens its existing excellence? That broadens opportunities to all students?
In 1995, when many of this year's high school graduates were born, Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of public schools. Today's students attend schools reshaped by the reform crusades of Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, Jean-Claude Brizard and the current CPS leader, Barbara Byrd-Bennett. These reforms are designed to close achievement gaps, boost test scores, help kids graduate, ready them for college, career, life.
In the 1990s, Vallas ended social promotion and crusaded for high-stakes standardized tests to hold schools accountable. His successor, Duncan, closed faltering schools, raised curriculum standards and pushed for new charter schools. Huberman brought data crunching on an epic scale to decision-making. CPS has revamped reading and math curricula, and extended the school day and year.
All this reform has produced meager results. Yes, there is progress in spots. Graduation rates are up. But half of Chicago's students can't meet tougher state standards for reading and math. Those tests will grow even tougher next spring. Startling statistic: Of 100 Chicago public high school freshmen, only eight earn a bachelor's degree by their mid-20s.
Why should this matter to all Chicagoans? Because crime, joblessness, poverty — many of this city's ills — take root at home and fester in the classroom. Parents who don't get their children ready for school pass them to teachers who can't compensate for all that those kids missed at home.
Result? "Two of the most pressing policy problems facing every American city, including Chicago, are improving schools for children, and keeping city residents safe," Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, tells us. "Schooling and violence are flip sides of the same coin." Kids who earn diplomas are far less likely to be involved in violence or crime. Evidence: Every year that a child stays in school reduces his or her statistical risk of being involved in violent crime, either as victim or perpetrator. Studies of who is at risk to be a victim of homicide have found as much as a sixfold difference between young men who drop out of high school and counterparts who even start college.
Linda A. Teplin, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, has spent nearly two decades tracking youths who entered the Cook County juvenile justice system. Many were far behind in school or had dropped out. As of 2012: Of the 1,829 youths who began the study in 1995, 119 had died, most of them violently. That's a death rate three to five times higher than their counterparts in Cook County's general population.
Dropouts who don't end up dead often end up in prison. By age 34, dropouts are about 140 times more likely to be in correctional institutions than their peers with college degrees, according to a 2011 study by Northeastern University in Boston. In Illinois, half of the people in prison in 2011 hadn't finished high school.
Those who don't end up dead or in prison often can't find jobs. "Dropping out is economic suicide," says Northeastern labor economist Andrew Sum. Chicago's jobless rate for dropouts is quadruple that of people with college degrees. Over a lifetime, Illinois dropouts earn 25 percent of what college grads do. A dropout costs the nation more than $300,000 in his or her working years, compared with a high school graduate, in lost tax revenues; dropouts pay less in taxes because they earn less.
That also includes the costs of food stamps and other aid; young dropouts are six times as likely to live in poverty as their peers who have four-year college diplomas. Girls who drop out are nearly nine times as likely to become single mothers as their counterparts who earn bachelor's degrees. Then the cycle repeats: Families in poverty and chaos often don't send kids to school ready to learn.
Even students who earn CPS diplomas may not be as ready as they think. Many CPS grads with test scores too low for anything but nonselective colleges wind up out of school and out of work a year after high school, reports the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research. In years past, young people who didn't graduate, or barely graduated, could find decent jobs in factories or elsewhere. Not anymore. That's driving a five-year plan to retool City Colleges of Chicago. Each campus focuses on a job sector and collaborates with local employers so students are ready for specific careers when they graduate. Executives from area companies help shape curricula so students gain skills that can lead directly to jobs.
There are more great ideas out there, more desperately needed innovations to improve schools and address crime, joblessness, family struggles. Tell us yours!
Those children of 1909-10? They became the adults who built Chicago into a powerhouse. They bequeathed that Chicago to their children. To us. Today's schools and their 22,000 teachers remain the engine of this city's future.
If they succeed, Chicago thrives. If they don't, Chicago falls short of … possibilities that stagger the imagination.