Nope, this is not a story from The Onion. In fact, the first warning signal appeared Monday in an ABC-7 I-Team story that revealed Chicago Public Schools has identified 100,274 students who are likely to miss school this year. These are students who struggled with low attendance, low grades and other problems last year.
Granted, last year was especially difficult. High schools like Curie worked hard to connect with students remotely, with some success, at least in the early days of pandemic schooling. But by the end of last school year, 40 high schools serving low-income Black and Brown students on the South and West sides of the city were struggling to keep hold of students and keep them learning. A WBEZ analysis found that on any given day, 1 in 4 of their students were absent. At the same time, 20 percent of these students’ math or English grades was an F. Reports from teachers suggest that was not the only F many received last year–and research shows that 2 Fs in core academic courses in the first year of high school are highly likely to put high school graduation permanently out of reach.
After a full year of remote school, data show that nearly one-third of CPS students are in danger of becoming truant this year. Truancy–being late, skipping school, cutting class–is the top of the slippery slope that leads to students dropping out. While the immediate focus is likely to be on high schools, historically the city has lost 1500 students a year between 8th and 9th grade, so paying attention to younger students matters, too.
For more than a decade, Chicago has been a leader in developing strategies to identify and hold on to struggling ninth-graders, because ninth grade is the make-or-break year when it comes to graduation. But can the city keep its eye on the ball with so many other issues in play–new district leadership, continuing pandemic-related drama, the shift to the elected school board? It’s hard to tell.
That’s why, this year, Chicago Unheard will be zeroing in on two neighborhoods–Back of the Yards and Roseland–and talking with students, parents, teachers, principals and community members to keep tabs on whether our young people are successfully reconnecting to school now that buildings are fully reopened.