Home > Uncategorized > Rahm Emmanuel’s Big Idea Will Require Big Dollars, and a Big Shift in the Role of Counselors

Rahm Emmanuel’s Big Idea Will Require Big Dollars, and a Big Shift in the Role of Counselors

September 15, 2017

As a HS administrator in the late 1970s, I concluded that the students who succeeded in high school were the ones who entered ninth grade with some idea about what they wanted to gain from the experience. Those students who sincerely aspired to college would enroll in the wide array of college prep classes the high schools offered, apply themselves, and in most cases gain entry to some kind of post secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue a specific trade enrolled in Vocational Education courses and often moved right into the workforce upon graduation, some of them outlearning the teachers who trained them. Any student who participated in activities like band, chorus, drama, and athletics worked hard enough to retain their eligibility and graduated on time and often found themselves with a life long avocation. These students were easy to schedule into classes, hardly ever came to the office as disciplinary cases, and enjoyed their years in high school.

There was a sizable group of students— roughly 20-30%— who didn’t have an idea about what they wanted to get out of high school, who could find no courses or activities that engaged them, struggled mightily. When I worked with them to find courses beyond those mandated for graduation they shrugged and asked me to assign them to whatever class had an opening. In most cases the parents of these children had given up on them: their indifference to school and aimlessness developed over their years in school and came into full bloom beginning in their sophomore year.

Given this experience, which many of the high school administrators I worked with over the years concurred with, I am in complete support with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s idea that “…all Chicago Public Schools and public-charter-school students must have a postsecondary plan in order to graduate”. But Mr. Emmanuel’s implementation plan for this sweeping mandate falls far short of the mark… and not for the reasons I read in many articles on this issue. Alia Wong’s Atlantic article, “The Controversy Behind Chicago’s Diploma Mandate” is a case in point.  In the article, Ms. Wong interviews  teachers, parents, administrators, and students and, in doing so, identifies one major flaw with Mr. Emmanuel’s mandate: he has not provided nearly enough funding to address the 20-30% of students who have no idea whatsoever what they want to get out of high school let alone those who want to go to college. Chicago is woefully short of counselors:

And even if counselors were able to dedicate their entire workday to guiding students through the postsecondary-planning process, there still aren’t enough of them. Although the American School Counselor Association recommends that each counselor be assigned to no more than 250 kids, across CPS there are 326 high-school students per counselor, according to 2016-2017 data provided by Brooks. The ratio varies significantly depending on the school. (Across the United States, each public-school counselor is responsible for 436 high-schoolers on average, according to 2014 data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.)

But neither Ms. Wong nor any of the folks she interviewed flagged the biggest flaw: High School guidance counselors are typically trained to help students get into college and have limited training as vocational counselors…. and in-depth vocational counseling is what is needed for those students who do not want to enroll in college.  And as it stands now, the students who do not want to attend college go to the end of the line in the counselor’s office… even though their needs are often higher than those students who aspire to college.

One other issue is glossed over: the transient nature of the population attending high schools and the high number of special needs students. Here’s a quote from Maurice Swinney, Principal at one of such school, who generally supports Mr Emmanuel’s idea but fears that the funding will fall short:

Disaster will only occur, Swinney said, if the city doesn’t do enough to support schools like his that serve high-needs populations. Almost all of Tilden’s studentsare low-income, and roughly four in 10 of them are in special education. What’s more, the school’s mobility rate (essentially the percentage of students who either transfer in or out in the middle of the year) is 36 percent—nearly twice the CPS average. Educational-attainment levels are just as dismal: According to 2016 data, just 50 percent of students graduated within five years, and just 32 percent of graduates enrolled in college.

“Every time someone in education or in politics has a bright idea and a way to raise the bar, it always sounds good in theory,” Swinney said. “But we know some schools are going to have a tougher time with this, and we need to make sure we as a district … help the schools be as successful as they want to be and as we want them to be.”

I get dismayed when good ideas like Rahm Emmanuel’s get sabotaged (or in this case self-sabotaged) by politicians who are unwilling to provide the time or resources needed to bring them to fruition. And like so many good ideas, this one will not only take time and money, it will require a shift in the thinking of middle and high schools as they work to engage students who are currently disengaged and, in many cases, challenged by circumstances.

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