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Courtesy of Voices of Youth in Education

Members of Voices of Youth in Education say student involvement in school curriculum is key to success.

Susan Dosemagen/MEDILL

An introduction to Voices of Youth in Chicago Education

Chicago students team with CPS to lower dropout rates

by Susan Dosemagen
Nov 29, 2008


Susan Dosemagen/MEDILL



Susan Dosemagen/MEDILL



Susan Dosemagen/MEDILL


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Voices of Youth in EducationCities in Crisis Study

Large cities have wide urban-suburban graduation rate disparities

The likelihood of a student graduating from one of the nation’s 50 largest cities amounts to a coin toss, says a new study released by America’s Promise Alliance.

The study, Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation, reported a 52 percent graduation rate for the 50 largest urban districts. This is far below the 70 percent nationwide average.

The City of Chicago School District ranked 31st out of 50, with a graduation rate of 51.5, according to the study.

Out of the 50 urban areas, cities ranking highest in graduation rates are Mesa, San Jose, Nashville, Colorado Springs, San Francisco, Tucson, Seattle, Virginia Beach, Sacramento and Honolulu. Cities with the lowest graduation rates include Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Columbus, Minneapolis, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and Oakland.

Authors of the study found large disparities in graduation numbers between cities’ urban districts and suburban districts.

The graduation gap between Chicago urban and suburban districts ranks eighth at about a 28 percent difference. Cities with larger gaps include Baltimore, Columbus, Cleveland, New York, Denver, Philadelphia and Indianapolis.

America’s Promise Alliance, founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was created to see that children receive the fundamental resources they need to succeed -- including education.

“I was thinking about dropping out,” Christopher Williams, a Chicago high school senior, said.

Williams, 18, was distracted by family problems and frustrated with teachers and curriculum. He began to question school and his future.

Then, his friend told him about Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, a student-led organization aimed at increasing the 55 percent graduation rate by keeping students engaged in school.

“What made me change that?” Williams said. “VOYCE was part.”

He joined VOYCE to help other Chicago students who are struggling with school and the same problems he did.

“I decided to keep trying because I’m not a quitter,” Williams, a senior at Uplift Community High School, said. “You can’t quit on certain things, you got to keep going, and VOYCE opened my eyes to see that.”

Williams teamed up with more than 50 students from 12 high schools and seven community-based groups in Chicago to research the issue and make recommendations to school officials.

Students feel because they are closest to the problem, they are the ones that can help find a solution.

“A lot of grown-ups think they have the whole picture … for once you are actually getting ideas from a kid that’s dealing with the problem,” said Williams, who attends Uplift Community High School in Uptown.

Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan agreed that the input of students is key in decreasing the dropout rate. A big piece of the puzzle is students because when teenagers struggle, other students know it first, he added.

“We can’t do this alone,” Duncan said at a press conference on Nov. 13.

Chicago Public Schools has a 55 percent graduation rate. That means, out of all students who start in Chicago schools in 9th grade, roughly half of them will finish within five years.

While this number has increased in recent years -- it was about 47 percent in 2000 -- it is still well below the national average.

During the 2003-2004 school year, the national average was about 70 percent, according to Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. The average for urban districts is about 60 percent.

“[It’s] basically saying you have a 50/50 chance of graduating and not graduating out of high school,” Williams said. “That was scary to me.”

It is scary to many other students in Chicago also, so they decided to do something about it.

More than 50 members, with the help of 70 others, conducted a yearlong survey to understand the problem better and prepare recommendations for Chicago schools. They questioned more than 1,325 students from 13 high schools and 38 communities. They also interviewed an additional 383 parents, students and teachers.

Members found that most students believe they are to blame for the dropout rate and the problems within the school system. Respondents also said that dropping out is not something students plan or anticipate, but something that occurs gradually over time.

The most common reasons given for students dropping out include pregnancy, gangs, lack of motivation, family problems and drugs, in that order.

Students used these findings to make recommendations to Chicago Public School officials, who have been very responsive to VOYCE participants and their plans.

Duncan cited the seven-year dropout-rate decrease but said they must still work with urgency and passion to help more students graduate.

“I think VOYCE is going to make a major change in Chicago Public Schools because we know how the kids feel,” Williams said. “We know what they’re thinking.”

After evaluating the data from peer interviews, the students emphasized relevance and rigor in the curriculum. They said most students felt a disconnect between courses and their own lives and were then losing interest in school.

“VOYCE thinks there needs to be more rigorous classes because students may think it’s too boring or it’s too easy,” Isra Omar, senior at Senn High School, said. “They just wonder, ‘Why am I here because this is school, it should be challenging because I want my education.’”

Students suggested creating connections between subject matter and student’s real life issues to keep them interested in class. When topics are not relevant, students tend to ignore them, become disinterested and eventually dropout, Omar said.

In response to the group’s research and recommendations, Chicago school officials are launching a pilot program that will ensure freshmen have a personalized four-year graduation plan and participate in freshmen retreats. It also allows for student input into curriculum reform and professional development for teachers.

Members of the program, funded by the non-profit Communities for Public Education Reform and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, traveled to five other states for research: New York, New Jersey, California, Washington and Texas. They visited more than 10 successful schools for research included in their analysis.

Student leaders with VOYCE attend Kenwood Academy and Roosevelt, Mather, Von Steuben, Kelly, Dyett, North Grand, Kelvyn Park, Senn, Uplift Community, Gage Park and Perspectives Calumet high schools.

Organizations working with the students are Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Organization of the NorthEast, Southwest Organizing Project and TARGET Area Development Corporation.