School Beat: The Nation Should Listen to Youth Voices from Chicago

by Lisa Schiff on October 29, 2009

Chicago is the virtual epicenter for transformations in education policy right now. With both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hailing from that metropolis, it is only natural to look to the recent history of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to see what might be in store for the rest of us. Unfortunately, as discussed in a previous School Beat column, what is often presented as a new direction from these leaders, is frequently turning out to be the same old standardized, routinized educational approach we became all too familiar with under the Bush Administration.

But like all cities, political leadership in Chicago can be found beyond those who hold elected office, where there is a rich history of community activism, activism that can be found within the public school realm as well. One particularly intriguing sector of that work is from students, who unlike students in San Francisco, appear to have no formal vehicle for bringing their perspectives and concerns to the school district staff, the Board of Education (BOE) and the public. While the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has a Student Advisory Council (SAC) with representatives who participate on the school board, the one mention of such a body in Chicago — the “CEO Student Advisory Council” — leads to a dead end.

By contrast to this moribund formal body, Chicago students are in fact organizing themselves and making their perspectives know in powerful and solution-oriented ways. Last November, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) issued a powerful report entitled “Student-Led Solutions to the Nation’s Dropout Crisis”. This publication is the result of an intensive participatory research project by a vast team of 52 students from across Chicago who investigated the issue of why students in CPS dropout at such great numbers (about 50%, as compared to about 30% nationwide (VOYCE report, p. 2). As a point of reference, according to a press release from earlier this year (the dropout prevent page for the district is blank, which one hopes is simply an unfortunate technical error) SFUSD’s official numbers are better than Chicago’s with only about 18% for the 2007-2008 school year.

An important caveat is that dropout rates are notoriously slippery to calculate, making comparisons across any district or state extremely challenging. Regardless of the exact percentages and various formulations used to arrive at them, dropout rates across the country are much steeper than they should be, which is why all new examinations at how to address this serious situation, such as the VOYCE report, are worth our attention.

After in-depth analysis of data from over 1325 student surveys and interviews with 208 students, 110 teachers, and 65 parents, VOYCE identified the following 3 key findings, followed by suggested solutions that could be implemented to address them:

1. Students in Chicago Public Schools have internalized the problem of the dropout rate and believe that they are the ones to blame for the failures of the school system. There is a difference between perception and reality when it comes to the reasons for the dropout rate, and it is only through a deeper critical analysis that students come to realize the systemic problems impacting public education.

2. Additionally, youth researchers found that dropping out is not something that students plan or anticipate. It is something that happens slowly over time.

3. VOYCE found that while teachers, parents, and students agree that relevance in curriculum is critical to students’ engagement in school, students feel that relevance is largely missing in their schools. This lack of relevance leaves students without a clear sense of purpose when it comes to their education.

The solutions proposed by VOYCE seem eminently reasonable and likely to be effective. For instance, one of the proposals for tackling the problem of making the curriculum both relevant and rigorous is to have students “engage in high level research projects of their choice that both build their academic skills and increase their understanding of the community around them.”

To tackle the issue of cultural competency and community knowledge o the part of teachers, VOYCE proposes that students “design and implement community orientations for teachers to build their understanding of the value of the communities in which they teach.”

To get students on the right track from the start, VOYCE has several proposals for programs for Freshman, including developing “personalized 4-year graduation plans.”

The above proposals are just a few of the very well-thought out ideas crafted from months of seemingly very solid community-based research and analysis. Clearly there is a great deal here for anyone concerned with addressing the dropout problem, no matter where that problem might exist.

The VOYCE researchers graciously acknowledge Arne Duncan and other CPS administrators for taking their recommendations seriously and indeed, the VOYCE website describes pilot projects that are underway in partnership with the district. Hopefully some of those homegrown proposals made an impression and will find their way back into the current federal education policy redesign efforts and trickle back down to the rest of the school districts across the country. While there is a steady stream of solid reports looking at the dropout problem (see, for instance, the National Governors Association Dropout Prevent Report, released October 28, 2009 that has many good suggestions for constructive roles for governors to play), the VOYCE report stands out because it was written by those closest to the problem — students. We would be wise to listen to what they have to say.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend Everett Middle School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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