New program aims to cut dropout rate

CHICAGO Teachers and administrators agree that the current dropout rate is unacceptable, but the pilot program launched Thursday was spearheaded by a group of students and community youth leaders. After a year-long study and dozens of meetings with CPS officials, students are now fighting to keep fellow students in class.

Student leaders say the statistics are depressing: only 55 percent of CPS freshmen will leave high school with a diploma. Instead of waiting for adults to fix the problem, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education -- or V.O.Y.C.E. -- has decided to be heard.

Thursday, youth leaders from V.O.Y.C.E. announced a new pilot program aimed at reducing the dropout rate.

"By doing that, we have to get it from the youth, because the youth are most affected, so we should join together and come up with a solution," said Laquida Vanbelt, junior, Perspectives.

The pilot program will specifically target freshman. As part of the program, struggling freshmen can receive personalized, four-year graduation plans. They can attend so-called "guidance retreats" three times a year and meet with juniors and seniors from the V.O.Y.C.E. program throughout the school year.

"Since we've already had the experience, we know what it looks like, and we can tell those coming through, don't do this, don't do that, this is what you need to do to succeed," said Michael Jones, senior, Hyde Park Academy.

"Students are really taking this seriously. They're looking forward to having their voices heard, so they do really feel engaged and feel ownership and not drop out," said Denise Corral, senior.

In order to find out how the pilot program would work best, student leaders conducted a survey of more than 1,300 CPS students. They also took trips to 13 successful high schools around the country and interviewed students to find out why some schools are more successful than others.

"Students are being pushed out of their schools all over the country, so we not only want to start in Chicago, to become a model for schools all over the county to learn from us," said Angela Clay, senior, Uplift Community High School.

CPS Chief Arne Duncan, who spoke at the event Thursday, says he believes the program will be a success.

"Who knows first when the child is struggling? It's not me or you, it's not the parent, it's not the teacher or the counselor, it's the other students. The more we empower other students the better we're going to do," said Duncan.

Initially, the program will involve eight Chicago public high schools. Organizers say they expect several thousand freshmen to participate.

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