Race and Equity

OPINION: ‘I’d filled out the FAFSA incorrectly, and I assumed it was the end of my education. It wasn’t — because my principal cared’

Helping more underrepresented students, especially black and brown young men, to prepare for life after high school

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My parents immigrated to the United States from Belize with a single purpose: to give their children educational opportunities that would break our family’s cycle of poverty. They spoke about college as an expectation, not an “if.” They wanted what every parent wants for his or her child, but they couldn’t navigate the system to make it happen.

I knew my parents could not pay for college. So at 17 years old, I sat at the kitchen table with a pencil and my dad’s tax returns and filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). My parents didn’t know how to complete the complicated form, so I thought I could do it myself.

Boy, was I wrong.

My request for financial aid to attend college was denied. I’d filled out the FAFSA incorrectly, and I assumed that was the end of my education. It wasn’t — because my principal cared. He cared so deeply about his students that he believed his responsibility extended well beyond our high school diplomas.

He wanted us to have intentional paths forward that would set us up for bright futures. So he followed up about my college plans. When I told him what happened, he replied, “No, you’re going to college,” and sprang into action. By the time he and my counselor were done, I had a corrected FAFSA and a full financial aid package to Chicago State University.

Related: OPINION: Higher education must not leave working families behind

I was lucky to have attended an exceptional public high school with a principal who cared about what was happening to me and had the skills and resources to fix it. But kids’ futures can’t be left up to luck. We know what students need as they prepare for life after high school. There are steps that every school system can take to help young people find their way — and to recognize that some students need more support than others.

Today, I am chief education officer of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the nation’s third-largest school district. We’ve made incredible progress. CPS is improving rapidly, with our five-year high school graduation rate at an all-time high of 78.9 percent and more students getting to and through college.

We still have work to do, though.

Too many students — especially young men of color — never earn their high school diploma, and many who do find themselves without a plan. That’s why we launched Learn. Plan. Succeed. in 2017, our initiative to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for what comes next.

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Starting with the Class of 2020, students will be required to have a postsecondary plan, such as a college or military acceptance, entry into a trade or job-training program, or an employment offer. Twice a year, students and families will receive a personalized report with readiness benchmarks, college and career options, and clear steps to help students toward the path of their choice.

This initiative isn’t about a piece of paper. The postsecondary plan also lives in the conversations that students have with counselors — the kind of conversations that would have helped me at 17.

It’s true that parents are valuable partners and should talk to children about their futures. But not every student has someone outside of school to assist them with things like registering for the SAT or ACT, choosing a college or filling out the FAFSA correctly.

I’ve heard people question the idea of encouraging low-income students to think about college and careers because doing so pushes a certain set of middle-class values. And you know what? That’s exactly what we’re doing, and I’m proud of it. My parents didn’t let their income limit their hopes for me. Core values transcend socioeconomic class.

Related: OPINION: The dangerous message in telling low-income students to skip college

If equity is a moral imperative, then we have a responsibility to provide every child access to opportunity, regardless of circumstances, race or neighborhood. Equity must be at the heart of everything that educators and system leaders do, because the policies we shape shape lives.

Chicago is leading the way in this work, but we’re not alone. As high school graduation rates rise, it’s time to take a hard look at what happens after students leave high school, and support them in creating concrete plans in partnership with adults who are passionately invested in their success. I challenge other cities and school districts to stand up for students in this way, and ask for Chicago’s support to see it through.

In my life as a first-generation college graduate, and in the lives of countless students I’ve taught since, I’ve seen what young people are capable of when given what they need to thrive. Our commitment to our students doesn’t end when they walk across the stage at graduation. We refuse to leave their futures to chance.

This story about preparing students for life after high school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

LaTanya McDade is chief education officer of the Chicago Public Schools and a future chief with Chiefs for Change.

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LaTanya McDade

LaTanya McDade is chief education officer of the Chicago Public Schools and a future chief with Chiefs for Change. See Archive

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