Chicago Tribune illustration

Chicago Tribune illustration (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

A week after his hand-picked Board of Education approved the contentious closing of 49 elementary schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted rising graduation rates as a sign that the district is on the right track.

A projected 63 percent of Chicago public school seniors will graduate at the end of the school year, up from 61 percent last year and part of a rising trend over the past decade, the Emanuel administration announced Tuesday.

Emanuel, speaking at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, said those numbers show that "we are pointed in the right direction, making the right decisions for our children."

"We have a lot more work ahead of us to achieve more for our children to make sure we have better graduations year in and year out, and that will be the true test of what our reforms are for," Emanuel said.

Education experts say the increase in graduation rates is because of reform efforts such as identifying freshmen at risk of failing and then working closely with them. Tracking freshmen was developed a decade ago by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research.

"There's been multiple administrations, multiple reform efforts," said Thomas Kelley-Kemple, a research analyst at the consortium.

After what has been a turbulent year for the nation's third-largest public school system, CPS officials sought to put the best spin possible on the 63 percent projection, hailing it in a news release as the "highest" rate ever for CPS.

It's actually the highest rate since 1999, when the district began using its present method for tracking the number of graduates. Comparatively, the national average for high school graduation is 78.2 percent, according to records from the 2009-10 school year, which are the most recent figures available.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO of CPS, was the keynote speaker at the City Club luncheon.

She listed for the audience of public officials, educators and politicians the new initiatives she promised would lead to an even better performance in coming years.

Among them, Byrd-Bennett said, are a more rigorous curriculum, full-day kindergarten starting in the fall and an initiative that calls for central office administrators to spend at least an hour in a classroom with students.

Performance bonuses offered last year to principals whose schools did exceptionally well will be extended this year to teachers, Byrd-Bennett said.

"Whatever has happened in this past year, it's done," she said, referring to the controversy over school closures, a seven-day teachers strike and the battle to extend the school day. "It is a new beginning. It's time to turn the page."

But for the Chicago Teachers Union and some communities affected by the closings, the fight is far from over.

The union has filed two federal lawsuits against closings, hoping to block the shutdown. On Tuesday, union officials announced plans to file another lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court on Wednesday.

nahmed@tribune.com