Chicago's Next Education Crisis Isn't Limited to Chicago -- Here's Why

Co-authored by Sara McElmurry, communications manager, Latino Policy Forum

This time last year, my hometown of Chicago was poised to make headlines across the country as Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was on the verge of one of its most tumultuous school years in recent history, kicking off with a tense teacher strike and wrapping up with the heartbreaking closure of nearly 50 community schools. The eyes of the nation were fixed on our corner of Illinois -- not just to follow the controversy, but also because as one of the country's global, diverse cities, Chicago is litmus test of educational realities across the country.

However, the new school year brings good news: Just last week, CPS students reported for the first day of classes, ringing in the 2013-14 school year largely without issue. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I'm hopeful a "smooth" first day is a sign we're collectively (albeit slowly) leaving our city's education woes behind us. But as an education advocate, I'm painfully aware that there's another school-related crisis brewing in my hometown -- and dozens of other cities across the U.S. are headed down the same path. But this is a crisis that doesn't usually grab headlines or spark protests in the street.

Representing 44 percent of the student body -- nearly 178,000 students -- Latinos are the largest cohort of students in CPS schools. But these students are almost as likely to drop out as they are to graduate: The four-year graduation rate for the district's Latino students was just 60 percent in 2011. While CPS celebrated an uptick in overall graduation rates last year, the margin of success for Latino students is still too thin when a full quarter of our city's workforce is currently Latino, a number that is poised to grow exponentially with time. The stakes are too high. Chicago's economic future depends on these kids' academic success.

Chicago isn't the only place in the state counting on Latino students' academic achievement. Illinois is poised to graduate its first majority-minority class in 2020. Today's fifth graders -- and the kindergarten, first-, second-, third-, and fourth-grade classes behind them -- are indicative of our multicultural future. Statewide, the White student population has dipped below 50 percent as Latinos have grown to represent approximately 25 percent of all students. But across Illinois, Latino students aren't faring any better than their Chicago counterparts, with 43 percent dropping out of high school as recently as 2007.

Why are we failing our Latino students -- and what can we do about it?

  • The issue is as complex as it is important. And it begins in preschool. President Barack Obama's ambitious new plan for preschool for all 4-year-olds is a hat-tip to the well-documented cognitive head start that early childhood education provides. But Illinois Latinos are far less likely to be enrolled in preschool than African American or white children. Given this reality, it is not surprising that many Latinos are already academically behind their peers when they start kindergarten. And that gap persists through school, culminating in dismal graduation rates.
  • Let's not forget about language. "Latino" is not synonymous with "limited English proficiency." Indeed, at 67 percent, a clear majority of Illinois' Latino students is not classified as English Language Learners (ELL). But 81 percent of Illinois' nearly 200,000 ELLs are Spanish speakers. Recognizing that bilingualism means a leg up in a global economy, Illinois has made strides in advancing these students' linguistic development. (Our bilingual preschool mandate, the first in the nation, will take effect in 2014.) But even as ELLs are students in 88 out of Illinois' 102 counties, less than 6 percent of the state's early childhood workforce has the training necessary to foster their linguistic development.
  • Qualified teachers are critical. And they can make all the difference in the experience of a learner. But for Latino students, linguistic and cultural factors are often the stuff "highly qualified" teachers are made of -- and the diversity of the students in our classrooms isn't reflected in the demographics of our educators. In predominantly-Latino CPS, just 18 percent of teachers and 17 percent of principals are Latino. And while CPS's CEO has promised to bolster these numbers, the dearth of Latino educators unfortunately isn't limited to Chicago. As of 2011, a mere 5 percent of Illinois teachers and administrators identified themselves as Latino.

Understanding the issues is step one. But action -- in the form of investments in increased access to quality early care and education in Latino neighborhoods, resources for teachers to pursue linguistic credentials, and strong teacher preparation programs that encourage diverse talent in the profession -- is critical, in Chicago, in Illinois, and across the country. (This report from my shop, the Latino Policy Forum, outlines a way forward in building a Latino education agenda.)

As Latino student achievement is increasingly the barometer of our collective economic future, we must stymie this brewing educational storm before it boils over into a crisis. Tomorrow's workforce is a multicultural workforce -- and today's investments will determine its aptitude.