Over the past decade, we have made great strides in improving the graduation rate for public school students in Chicago and nationally. Yet in 2011, despite experiencing a 20% gain in graduation rates in the decade prior, roughly 60,000 students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) between the ages 13-21 dropped out of school — a disproportionate number of whom were low-income youth and students of color. The barriers many of these students face to obtaining a high school diploma can not be tackled using traditional policy levers. After the unprecedented crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic that exacerbated many of the challenges these students already face, our schools can’t go back to business as usual – and they don’t have to.
The Education Lab has partnered with CPS and the alternative schools that disproportionately serve these students in Chicago: Options Schools. Our collaboration to better understand students who enroll in Options Schools and their experiences has revealed an important insight: tremendous variability exists among the barriers students face to completing an education, so identifying students’ needs more precisely and providing them personalized supports — systematically and at scale — are key to helping them succeed. This analysis illustrated that efforts to address disparities in student outcomes must address both Options Schools and their neighborhood counterparts. Students also experience similar barriers in the neighborhood, or mainstream, district-run high schools.
Seizing the Opportunity to Advance Education Equity
2021 Education Lab report on barriers to education faced by CPS students.
The Chicago Student Success Initiative (CSSI) was a commitment from CPS, in conjunction with the University of Chicago Education Lab and a generous gift from AbbVie Pharmaceuticals, to support the innovation and incubation of new interventions and school models for the city’s most disadvantaged youth. This initiative expanded upon existing school and district efforts to systematically identify the needs of students facing significant barriers toward high school graduation and the best supports and interventions to meet those needs. CSSI aimed to identify or design, test, and scale student supports for alternative or Options School students and their counterparts in neighborhood high schools that will yield the largest gains in academic achievement, graduation, and postsecondary success. Additionally, through its work on CSSI, the Education Lab partnered with CPS to leverage data to drive policy decisions enabling the district to serve better students who face significant barriers to high school graduation.
Beginning in 2019, we established a number of formal structures to engage and receive input from key stakeholders and practitioners on CSSI, including a steering committee, working group, and student advisory council. From 2019-2022 we piloted and implemented nine interventions to support student engagement, mental health, and postsecondary planning, providing direct services to 2,035 CPS high school students across 12 partner schools. This partnership led to CPS integrating nine new positions from the pilots into permanent roles and implementing major policy improvements.
These interventions included:
- CPS Structured Literacy
- Postsecondary Pathways
- Postsecondary Champions
- Saga Online
- High School Transitions