Mayor Rahm Emanuel might actually be right when he says the dropout rate is down at Chicago's public high schools.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel might actually be right when he says the dropout rate is down at Chicago's public high schools. Credit: Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

One day not long ago, when I was ranting and railing—as I’m apt to do—about the utter dysfunction of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school policies, a fellow named Peter Cunningham cut me short.

You should at least give the mayor credit for rising graduation rates, he told me.

I’ll admit that until then I’d never given much thought to Mayor Emanuel’s claims that the graduation rates are going up. I’d figured they were either distortions or out-and-out fabrications. You know, like most mayoral claims.

However, under pressure from Cunningham—a most persistent man—I delved a little deeper. And, well . . .

First let me say something about Mr. Cunningham: he is, among other things, a former press aide to Mayor Daley and to U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan. Plus, he’s pals with Mayor Rahm.

So you might say that he and I come from opposite sides of the Democratic Party’s political spectrum. On the other hand, he plays a mean rock ‘n’ roll guitar, so all is not lost.

In any event, I talked to principals, teachers, and union officials about the graduation rate. And, well, as one principal told me, “I think you’re gonna have to show your boy Rahm some love on this one.”

Gulp. Well, here goes . . .

Yes, Peter, it’s true: the graduation rate has gone up under Mayor Emanuel’s regime.

And the mayor is free to use that line in his next reelection commercial.

About 70 percent of the kids who start high school in Chicago now end up finishing. That certainly leaves room for improvement, but it’s far better than it once was.

The rising graduation rates are connected to Freshman on Track, a program which is basically a central-office mandate that teachers and principals do whatever it takes to make sure that no ninth-grader receives a failing grade in any subject.

That’s because Fs discourage students and make them think there’s no point in staying in school. As a result, Fs are generally the first step to dropping out.

And if you think, as I do, that there’s more to be gained by keeping kids in school than by nudging them out, you should do what you can to promote them. Even if their mastery of any given subject is a little sketchy.

But not so long ago, such tolerance was widely vilified as “social promotion” by the people running our city.

Personally, I could never understand the furor over social promotion.

Sure, we want students to demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of the basics before they move on with life. But c’mon—we’ve all been helped along at one time or another.

I myself was the beneficiary of a junior-year chemistry teacher who took pity on me and gave me the passing grade I needed to get out of high school. I knew as much about chemistry as Mayor Rahm knows about hockey.

The point is that flunking kids and holding them back or forcing them to go to summer school encourages them to drop out—even when we claim we’re doing it for their own good.

It’s sort of like the way Mayor Emanuel says he’s helping low-income mental health patients by closing their neighborhood clinics.

Wait—I was supposed to be praising the mayor in this column.

Anyway, as long as we’re making concessions, I also believe the time has come for former Chicago Public Schools leaders Gery Chico and Paul Vallas, as well as former mayor Richard Daley, to show some love for Julie Woestehoff.

She’s the former head of the nonprofit Parents United for Responsible Education, known as PURE. As such, she advocated a philosophy that’s similar to the one now championed by Mayor Rahm. Which is beyond ironic.

To her credit, Woestehoff was making the case for promoting students back in the late 90s and early 00s, when Mayor Daley’s underlings were holding back upwards of 40,000 kids a year.

For her efforts, Woestehoff was jeered by the powers that be. “PURE is a paid advocacy group with a vested interest in preserving the status quo,” Vallas said in one press release from 2000, when he was the schools CEO. “It opposes high standards, accountability and the elimination of social promotion.”

Chico went further. “This is not Saigon on top of the U.S. embassy,” Chico, then the school board president, told reporters. “We are not leaving anybody behind. Thousands of kids are being helped by this who in the past were left to float and drift. It’s not going to happen on our watch.”

You know, I’m not sure what Chico was getting at with that mixed metaphor. Maybe he was the beneficiary of social promotion from a compassionate high school English teacher.

Eventually, under Duncan, CPS eased up on holding kids back. And now the district is going in the opposite direction. Just like Julie said it should!

I should point out that in the late 90s, during the height of the fight against social promotion, the CPS dropout rate was well above 50 percent. It’s been falling steadily over the last few years and is now around 30 percent.

Anyway, back to Mayor Emanuel. Look, Mr. Mayor, if you want to be more than a political operator who slashes from the poor to give to the rich—and then takes contributions from the rich to publicize your boasts about helping the poor—you have to expand on this dropout success.

In other words, stop wasting money on frivolous stuff and start spending it on programs like art, music, drama, and chess. You can even bring in some tutors so the kids get one-on-one help with complicated stuff like, for instance, chemistry.

The point is that while you’re encouraging more kids to stay in school, you should make sure it’s a meaningful experience.

Do that, Mr. Mayor, and I’ll really have to show you some love.