Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline Starts Outside the Classroom

Chicago shows that the best way to keep young people out of jail is to make sure they’re staying busy

Rahm Emanuel
GEN
Published in
4 min readSep 28, 2020

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A graduation ceremony at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, IL. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Americans today are deluged by a seemingly endless stream of horrible news. Wildfires. Hurricanes. Economic dislocation. Social unrest. Naked power grabs undermining hallowed institutions. All that amid a pandemic that has already taken 200,000 American lives, many of which might have been saved had the White House been even half-competent. The country at this moment could use something to cheer about. And while it’s not getting much attention, Chicago has some welcome news at the ready.

Consider this: Chicago Public Schools in 2020 boasted a record graduation rate of 82%, up from 56% just a decade ago, and the lowest ever dropout rate at 5.6%. That marks eight consecutive years of improvement in a district where 84% of students live at or below the poverty rate. Second, after Chicago in 2017 became the first and only school system in the country to make enrolling in college or community college, joining the armed forces, beginning a vocational program, or securing a job a prerequisite to receiving a high school diploma, 97.5% of last year’s graduating class walked secure in knowing what they were going to do next. Third, forthcoming data from the University of Chicago Crime Lab reveals that adolescent arrests dropped by 75% during the years the city made these educational gains, from 15,000 in 2010 to little more than 3,700 in 2019.

The biggest beneficiaries in each of these three trends were adolescents of color. Young men and women from Black and Hispanic backgrounds, primarily, made the biggest jumps in graduation rates and college enrollments and saw the biggest decline in arrests. But if you think these results were driven by the changes my mayoral administration made in the courtroom and the classroom, you’d be looking in all the wrong places. Without a doubt, I worked hard on both fronts from lengthening the school day and…

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