Jobless and Out of School: The Education Equity Project Fights for the Rights of Students

“My friend would be alive today if he had a job.”

Those are the haunting words of a young woman at a community hearing quoted in a recent report by the Great Cities Institute at UIC. The recently released report entitled, “Lost: The Crisis of Jobless and Out of School Teens and Young Adults in Chicago, Illinois and the U.S.,” provides data and anecdotal evidence of young people in Chicago and throughout the state who are unemployed and/or out of school. For 20- to 24-year-olds in Chicago, joblessness in 2014 was as follows: 54 percent for Blacks, 37 percent for Hispanic or Latinos, and 27 percent for Whites. Young Black people in Chicago who are both out of work and out of school had the highest percentage, with Black 16 to 19 year olds at 14.3 percent and Black 20 to 24 year olds at 41 percent. These Chicago percentages are higher than New York City, Los Angeles, the State of Illinois, and the U.S as a whole.

The report confirms that low rates of employment are concentrated geographically in neighborhoods that are racially segregated. Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is focused on the underlying problems highlighted by this report, particularly barriers in education. Youth employment rates are tied to conditions of inequity and discrimination in neighborhoods and cannot be seen as a distinct problem. The unemployment rate perpetuates a cycle of poverty that creates devastating effects on Chicago’s neighborhoods and the city as whole.

At the core of the Education Equity Project’s fight to keep students in school is the belief that opportunities in school open doors for the type of employment that is necessary to breakdown conditions of poverty. However, an increasing number of students in Chicago and across Illinois are subject to “school push out,” a combination of policies and practices that remove students from the school setting with little or no educational services. Most of these policies and practices focus on using suspension and expulsion as primary disciplinary measures, which forces students out of school. In Illinois and Chicago, our Black, low-income, and disabled students are the most at risk. As students are pushed out of school, they fall prey to the School to Prison Pipeline, which abandons educating young people and leaves them vulnerable to the criminal justice system. This pipeline is driven by harsh, biased, and exclusionary discipline policies and practices; lack of supportive community resources; and an inability to access the private resources that many higher income families can to avoid such negative effects.

Students who are out of school for a long period of time are less likely to graduate. In fact, just one out-of-school suspension has been shown to increase the chances that a student drops out of high school. At-risk students are also disproportionately arrested at school for the same offenses committed by their peers in more affluent communities creating a direct pipeline to the juvenile justice system that feeds off students of color who live in the most disadvantaged circumstances.  Lack of a high school diploma and past criminal records create barriers for young people to access higher education and other types of opportunities needed to secure meaningful employment. With this understanding, the Education Equity Project works to combat the use of harsh, biased exclusionary discipline because, instead of improving school safety, it creates an unhealthy school climate that produces a devastating impact on the lives of young people.

The racial bias in school discipline and school push out contributes to the racial disproportionality in unemployment rates of young Black people in Chicago. In Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the country, Black students make up approximately 40% of the total district enrollment. But in the 2013-14 school year, they represented 75% of the students that received out-of-school suspensions, and 79% of the students that were expelled. This racial disproportionality and the problems illustrated in the Great Cities report, must be addressed through targeted solutions. For instance, when suspension and expulsion numbers are reduced through the use of appropriate interventions and restorative practices, but are not targeted to drive down racial disparities, the overall numbers go down but the racial disproportionality often remains. One way to begin developing targeted strategies is to understand that racial implicit bias unconsciously affects everyone, including teachers and administrators that are making disciplinary decisions. Many times, without intention, teachers and administrators interpret the behaviors of students of color, particularly Black students, to be more threatening and violent.  This leads to harsher consequences for students that are not merited by their actions. The Education Equity Project strongly advocates for all school district personnel to undergo professional development that recognizes the problems of implicit bias and employs de-biasing strategies and other targeted solutions aimed at driving down inequities in school discipline.

Access to a quality education is also often determined by neighborhood, which, due to the hyper-segregation in the Chicago area, means it is also impacted by race. The Education Equity Project has mapped the schools in Chicago with the highest expulsion rates and shown that the schools with highest expulsion rates are predominately charter high schools and many of those schools are located in largely Black neighborhoods on the West and South sides of the city. It is also Chicago’s Black neighborhoods that have experienced the extraordinary instability from disinvestment and massive school closures. Map 6 of the Great Cities report shows that “areas with 40.1 percent to 60.0 percent and 60.1 percent to 80.0 percent (the highest two categories) of jobless individuals were remarkably similar to the areas with the highest concentration of Black Individuals age 18 to 24 with over 90 percent Black populations.” Without investments in these communities and strategies to keep the students in school, too many young people will end up being one of these statistics.

A current example shows the “havoc” that the Great Cities report says can be created by these unemployment numbers. Chicago State University is a public university located in the Roseland neighborhood, which according to the report in 2014 had a population that was 96.9% Black. The university’s students are primarily Black and low income, and the school relies heavily on state funding. It receives about $36 million. With the lack of a state budget, the legislative standoff in Springfield, and the school receiving absolutely no state funding since July of last year, the situation has become dire. The hashtag #SaveCSU has been featured in a social media campaign to bring public awareness. If the University is forced to close its doors, many of these students will have no other meaningful 4-year college options that are affordable and accessible. The school is in a neighborhood with one of the highest jobless rates of 18 to 24-year olds at 61.6% (once again as shown in Map 6 of the Great Cities report). In light of this report, we are reminded how losing Chicago State University would only add insult to injury. We must continue to support the institutions and strategies that provide opportunities for our young people. We must invest in all Chicago’s communities and understand that the conditions of one block, one neighborhood, or one community are inextricably connected to our collective well-being. The Education Equity Project continues to fight for equity in our education system, knowing that our work is always connected to the need for equity on all fronts.