Students create pilot project to battle dropout problem

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • November 17, 2008 @ 3:00 PM

A student-led pilot project will include personalized, four-year graduation plans for students at eight city high schools to combat dropout rates that remain above 40 percent in Chicago.

Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a group of youth leaders from multiple city high schools and community organizations, created the program. VOYCE worked with Chicago Public Schools officials to develop the pilot project, and announced its creation recently at The Spertus Institute during a panel discussion addressing dropout issues.

Unlike other new CPS initiatives, including last summer‘s Freshman Connection and The Paper Project, which offers cash to students at selected high schools for good grades, this project is the idea of students.

More than 1,300 city students were surveyed and organization members also visited students at schools in five other states.

The students‘ keen interest in the program proved appealing to CPS chief Arne Duncan.

“We are excited to partner with VOYCE because it gives us another opportunity to have a direct dialog with students and engage them in transforming the Chicago Public Schools,” Duncan says.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Communities for Public Education Reform fund the program.

“This process of engaging youth in their own educational futures is what VOYCE is all about,” Maria DeGillo, a VOYCE student leader and CPS student at Truman Middle College, said in a statement. “Our goal is for CPS to eventually adopt the full spectrum of our student-led initiatives.”

The eight high schools participating in the pilot project are Roosevelt, 3436 W. Wilson; Kelly, 4136 S. California; Dyett, 555 E. 51st; Kelvyn Park, 4343 W. Wrightwood; Perspectives Tech, 8313 S. May; Gage Park, 5630 S. Rockwell; Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone, and Senn, 5900 N. Glenwood.

Two schools, Kelvyn Park and Senn, are also participating in The Paper Project, in which ninth-graders can earn up to $2,000 in their freshman year for good grades.

In addition to the eight pilot-project schools, VOYCE schools include Mather High School, North Grand High School, Uplift Community High School and Perspective Calumet High School. Students leaders at all 12 VOYCE schools intend to create student-led leadership teams with teachers and administrators as “adult allies,” develop a VOYCE leadership academy to train leadership team members and create community orientations for teachers.

Among the group‘s findings in its yearlong study is that students blame themselves for the failures of the school system.

“It‘s unfortunate that any student would believe they are the cause of a nationwide problem,” says Hennessy Williams, a VOYCE student leader at Kenwood.

City dropout rates have dropped each of the last five years, but remained at 41.6 percent in spring 2007. The concern about students dropping out of school led Duncan, Board of Education President Rufus Williams and other CPS officials to hit the streets on the West Side in September during a re-enrollment day at Clemente Community Academy.


Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.