A group of student leaders in Chicago has persuaded the city school system to launch a pilot program designed to reduce the dropout rate by making high school more relevant and responsive to teenagers’ needs.
Students from 12 high schools and seven community groups banded together to form Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, or VOYCE, and conducted a yearlong research project to find out why so many young people leave school and don’t attend college.
One of their findings was that students blame themselves, rather than their schools, for the high dropout problem. They also discovered that students disengage from school because they see no connection between their studies and their own lives and futures.
Based on those and other findings, the 409,000-student Chicago school district announced last week that it has agreed to start the first phase of a pilot project in 12 high schools. In eight of those schools, freshmen will develop personalized graduation plans, and those who are having difficulty will have a chance to participate in “guidance retreats” to get them back on track. The district will also set up a process to allow students to have a say in curriculum reform and teacher training.
At some of the schools, VOYCE leaders will help build student-led leadership teams with teachers and administrators and start a leadership academy to train other students how to bring about positive change in their schools. They will also have “community orientations” for teachers to better acquaint them with the neighborhoods they teach in.
Hennessy Williams, 18, who took part in the research enterprise, said the project sends a message to teenagers everywhere.
“They can change things if they want to,” said Mr. Williams, a junior at Kenwood Academy. “But who you talk to about it, and how you do it, matters. You could start a group. You don’t just try to change things, but you do the research first. That can make a big difference.”
Chicago schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan said in a statement that the district “recognizes that students have an important role to play in their education” and that the pilot represents “the first step in a potential series” of programs to better engage high school students.
Details of the project and research are online.
A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week