Chicago Public Schools Tells Students: No Post-Grad Plans? No Diploma

Tineesha Coleman, a junior, works on a practice ACT test with her science teacher Rachael Owens on Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, at John Marshall Preparatory High School in Chicago. AP Photo/Martha Irvine

Chicago Public Schools recently implemented a new high school graduation requirement that may prevent some students from receiving the diplomas they’ve earned.

The school system’s “Learn.Plan.Succeed.” initiative is designed to ensure students have successful futures after graduation. Yet it will withhold high school diplomas from students in they fail to meet (and provide proof of) one of the following criteria:

  • College acceptance letter received and returned
  • Military acceptance or enlistment letter
  • Acceptance into a job program (like a coding boot camp)
  • Acceptance into a trades pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship
  • Acceptance into a gap-year program
  • Current job or job offer letter

The class of 2020 will be the first to tackle this requirement, according to the school system’s press release.

Chicago Public Schools is the nation’s third-largest school district and the first large urban district to implement such a graduation requirement, the release said.

Where This Could Go Wrong

When I initially learned about this new requirement, I thought of several ways this could go wrong.

What about students who can’t secure a job before graduation, especially disabled students who might face more challenges finding work?

What about students who intend to go to college but were rejected from the schools they applied to for fall enrollment?

What about students whose families will rely on them to provide full-time care for a younger sibling, sick parent or elderly grandparent, which would impede them from holding a job or taking college courses?

What about students whose lives after graduation include plans to be a stay-at-home spouse or stay-at-home parent?

What about the students who plan to start their own business instead of jumping into the traditional workforce? Or students who choose to do freelance work or join the gig economy?

What if a student plans to take a gap year to volunteer, travel or explore their interests and those plans don’t follow a specific “gap-year program”? Or if instead of a gap year, they just want to take the summer off before starting a lifetime of work?

The list could go on.

Chicago Public Schools said students with extenuating circumstances could get waivers from this graduation requirement. I reached out to the school district’s office of communications to get a better idea of what qualifies as “extenuating circumstances” and will update this post once I get a response.

In addition to the concerns that popped into my head, The Washington Post reported critics believe the school district doesn’t have the financial resources to support students making post-graduation plans, citing the 2016 layoff of over 1,000 teachers and staff and a lack of guidance counselors to handle the volume of students.

But…It Could Also Benefit Students

While the “Learn.Plan.Succeed.” graduation requirement initially angered me, I do see the value in having students know their plans for the future before graduation.

Having a path to follow can prevent some young adults from fumbling through the unstructured world of post-grad life and accumulating debt along the way.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told The Washington Post, “We are going to help kids have a plan, because they’re going to need it to succeed.”

In addition to the “Learn.Plan.Succeed.” initiative, Chicago Public Schools also announced new graduation requirements for students to take financial education courses (starting with the class of 2021) and specific science curriculum (starting with the class of 2022).

Here are some resources to help members of the class of 2020 decide their post-grad plans:

  • For students looking to forgo a four-year school, this post, this one and this one each highlight careers that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, though some do require completion of a two-year program.
  • For those considering enrolling in the military, Today’s Military provides information on the different branches of service and what it takes to enlist.
  • For those considering a gap year, this post featuring three young adults who took breaks from school can offer a helpful perspective.

I’ll be interested to see whether this initiative will be successful in Chicago and if other school systems will follow suit.

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.