The Make or Break Year: Lessons Learned From Chicago Public Schools on How We Can Help Young People Graduate

From 2011 to 2018, something remarkable happened in Chicago: graduation rates skyrocketed from 56.9 percent to 78.2 percent

This inspiring 21 percentage point increase in young people earning a diploma did not happen in a vacuum. Countless students, educators, administrators, advocacy organizations, and lawmakers all played a role in changing the education landscape to help young people succeed.  

The story of how a new holistic approach to support students, Freshman OnTrack, transformed education outcomes in Chicago public schools is told by Emily Krone Phillips in her new book, The Make or Break Year. 

Because the GradNation team at America’s Promise is consistently working to give students the chance to have a “make year,” I sat down with Emily back in May to talk about what she saw firsthand in Chicago, why focusing on the ninth-grade year works, and how we can apply these lessons to communities and schools across the country. Below are some key highlights from our conversation.

Relationships with Caring Adults Matter 

One takeaway from The Make or Break Year that resonates with my work at America’s Promise was how hard-working adults can truly change the trajectory of students’ lives by building relationships. 

Take Maurice Swinney, the then-principal of Tilden Career Community Academy. He helped implement the Freshman OnTrack model to target the needs of individual students, connect each student with an adult mentor, and give them the opportunity to achieve their American Dream. 

At America’s Promise, we believe that caring adults are at the crux of childhood development and that positive relationships with adults can help get students on track. Swinney is a perfect example of how an adult can serve as a positive guide for young people navigating the social and academic parts of the high school years. 

A Flexible Approach is Important 

The original iteration of Freshman OnTrack – a presecriptive approach to supporting freshmen – failed, but fortunately, that’s only where Emily’s story begins. Freshman OnTrack is an odd duck among interventions because it was neither top-down nor purely grassroots. Educators had flexibility and time to work with reseachers to respond in the ways that made sense to them. Through trial and error in supportive work environments, school leaders in Chicago put in place a whole new educational infrastructure to achieve the best outcomes for their students based on their realities. Educators swapped successful tactics across schools, adjusted for the realities of their schools, and gave students the best opportunity to walk across the graduation stage. 

At America’s Promise we are leading the GradNation Acceleration Initiative, three community and two statewide programs to improve graduation rates for students from varying backgrounds, including students in foster care, low-income students, and English learners. As we continue to figure out what works best for these students, the story of Chicago Public Schools serves as a reminder to always be malleable in our work, get creative, and discover the approaches that work for different communities, schools, and individual young people. 

Never Give up on Any Student 

One final lesson from The Make A Break Year is that we must keep fighting to ensure every student gets the education they need to succeed. Freshman OnTrack jumpstarted graduation rates, but only because of those in the community who looked at the personalized needs of each young person, like Eric and Marcus in the book, inside and outside of the classroom, and refused to give up on any student. 

“In seventh and eighth grade I was, I guess, a bully. I was an angry person. My confidence was really low…” explained Eric, a student at Hancock. But by the end of ninth grade, Eric experienced a “big shift in mentality…It took a LOT of people to tell me I had promise and that they saw promise in me to believe I was smart…I’m just an average student. But in terms of extracurricular, things I do to provide for the school, I excel in that, and in helping other people.” There are thousands of students like Eric who are on a completely different trajectory because of the ontrack movement in Chicago schools. 

At America’s Promise, we’ll keep fighting for all young people to be on track to a life of possibility and a chance to reach for their own American Dream.