Vallas: Chicago teens are dying, committing more crimes: work-study can fix that

Vallas: Chicago teens are dying, committing more crimes: work-study can fix that

Much attention is rightly being paid to how city policy can address the need to provide young people with meaningful opportunities for work. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Crimes against – and committed by teens – are on the rise

Violence against, and committed by, school-age youth has seen historic increases since COVID-19. The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab just reported a 50% increase in murders of youth 17 years and younger since 2019. Over 90% were not enrolled in school. The death rate of young people murdered in Chicago exceeds the death rates of active-duty combat soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Earlier analysis by the Crime Lab documented 8% of those arrested for murder, 9% for shootings, 32% for robbery and 49% for carjackings were youth 17 years and younger.

These carjacking numbers are alarming because they more than doubled since pre-COVID. While it doesn’t reflect the likelihood that younger carjackers are more apt to get caught, it is still a disturbing number. Equally disturbing is the habitual nature of these young offenders. Over two-thirds of youths arrested had a prior arrest and 1-in-3 had four or more arrests, according to 2020 data. In the year following an arrest for carjacking, a youth is 77 times more likely to be murdered than the average Chicago resident.

COVID school closures led to a hopeless generation – and many chronically absent teens

No single act has been more responsible for the surge in youth violence than the closing of Chicago Public Schools campuses for over 17 months. Between 2019 and 2022, CPS has seen enrollment drop by nearly 37,000 students. That is over three times the number of enrolled students in the 50 near-empty schools former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed in 2013.

With no school and no work to keep them occupied, many Chicago teens dropped out of the system entirely. Few of the violent youth offenders will ever return to school. Fewer still will move on to have normal lives. Unfortunately, large numbers will go on to become career criminals, preying on the community.

Still, a large group remains in school but is even farther behind and will likely opt out of the system, too. That’s evidenced by dramatic increases in school absenteeism. Illinois State Board of Education data shows last year an astonishing 45% of CPS students met the threshold for chronic absenteeism because they missed 10% or more of the school year without a valid excuse. That is almost twice the rate seen before the pandemic. The problem may be much worse as the CPS inspector general cites widespread problems with how students who stop coming to school are tracked.

Paid work-study is a tool to get Chicago’s young people back on track

It is imperative city schools take action to reclaim students who have left school and those on the verge of leaving. This must begin at the high-school level through paid work-study, which will make high schools relevant and provide incentives for students to return to school, stay in school and take it more seriously. It will introduce them to a world outside their neighborhoods, a work world populated by positive role models and mentors who can help them build the competence and confidence needed for success. Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, founded in 1996, demonstrates the effectiveness of the universal work-study approach among poor, minority children. There are now 37 Cristo Rey model schools nationwide.

To reclaim the growing population of older dropouts and students who have been expelled or released from incarceration, CPS should also support the opening of new alternative schools to re-enroll those high school students and older young adults.

There are many examples in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, New York City and also here in Chicago that have successfully demonstrated how to re-enroll students who are out of school. They help students earn their high school diploma and help build their work skills to secure employment. The Chicago area has a large number of alternative schools and a plethora of job training and support programs that target young adults and older people who are dropouts, unemployed, displaced veterans and returning to society after incarceration.

Twelve years ago the state legislature authorized the creation of five new charter schools to serve this specific population of out-of-school youth, with each charter allowed to open five satellite micro campuses. CPS failed to award a single charter, even though the teachers union did not oppose the initiative. The unions should not see these schools as competition because they would be serving older students lost to the system. Like regular high schools, alternative schools can offer paid work-study in lieu of electives and irrelevant courses.

How to make work-study work in Chicago

Mayor Brandon Johnson can take the lead in providing professional opportunities by directing all city agencies and government institutions that it controls to offer work-study and apprentice-type programs. Chicago controls agencies with combined budgets exceeding $28 billion and some 80,000 employees, not including contractors. In hundreds of different occupational areas, the city has the capacity to offer thousands of diverse work-study opportunities including as first responders, in the trades, in public transportation, aviation, streets and sanitation, water and sewer, professional services, etc.

The city can require unions it has contracts with to offer paid pre-apprenticeships and internships that would be paid for by CPS. Likewise, the city’s many vendors and subsidized developers could be required to develop work-study opportunities where practical. Other private employers could be offered incentives to participate. The private internships could run the occupational gamut and while many procurable jobs would be menial in nature, the work experience, the income-earning opportunity and the safe environment are the major benefits to these students.

Work-study is not cost prohibitive. While a small portion of the $1 billion in new federal K-12 COVID-19 relief can be used to quickly scale the work-study offerings, over time these offerings can be permanently funded by phasing out select electives and other nonessential courses. Work-study would become a permanent part of the school schedule and staffing model. Re-prioritizing 3% of the CPS operating budget would create tens of thousands of work-study jobs annually. In addition, the more students who return to school or elect to stay, particularly low-income students, the more state and federal aid will flow to the schools.

Of course, much would depend on the Chicago Teachers Union leadership’s willingness to provide the flexibility needed to allow work-study offerings to be operated, supervised and managed by someone other than CTU employees, even if they are members of other unions. Success and long-term sustainability depend on the ability of other unions to effectively run the programs by settings standards, having their members design and manage the programs and to have those programs subsidized.

Work-study at CPS must be a part of a massive city and countywide effort targeting young adults, the chronically unemployed and those previously incarcerated. The American Rescue Plan Act combined with long-standing programs such as the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and Workforce Opportunity Tax Credit provide financial support for an aggressive citywide job training and employment plan. Creating a similar work-study model for returning citizens is critically needed if the criminal pipeline is to be shut down. However, such an effort should and must begin at the high-school level

Work-study will make high school relevant, reclaim those who have left, prepare them for the work world, provide most with their first wages and keep them safe. It is a game-changer and a critical life preserver for Chicago’s most vulnerable teenagers and young adults. Some in Chicago continue to blame the lack of economic opportunities as an underlying cause of violence. Work-study would disrupt that cycle by keeping young people in school and connecting them to the work world.

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