Raul Botello stands before the Roosevelt High School Student Council with a simple question, “What does change mean to you?” Tentative hands rise around the room offering simple one word answers – “opportunities” or “improvement.” But one young woman has the answer Botello seeks: Change is “not just for yourself but for everyone.”

As a lead organizer for the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Botello is challenging students to think about change in their schools. As the ones closest to the problem of high dropout and low graduation rates, students have a unique perspective on how to reverse the trend, he believes.

In January 2007, Albany Park Neighborhood Council joined seven other community organizations to create Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE). Student leaders of VOYCE will research problems in the schools, such as the high dropout rates among African-American and Hispanic youth, and then devise solutions and advocate for change in their own school and across the city.

“There’s been very little student activism. It’s just exciting to have young people bring ideas to the table,” says Botello, who thinks student involvement will rejuvenate community involvement and school reform.

Around the country, school districts are struggling with high dropout rates. The Editorial Projects in Education Research Center estimates 1.23 million students, about 30 percent of the 2007 class, will not graduate on time. In Chicago, the numbers are even worse. The Consortium on Chicago School Research calculates only 54 percent of Chicago Public School students graduated on time in 2000.

The Albany Park students are among 150 students from 12 high schools around Chicago conducting the six-month research project. They will interview more than 1,000 Chicagoans, including students, teachers and parents, on a range of topics from curriculum to race, including questions designed to root out the reasons behind the high dropout rates.

Then, the students will research other school systems around the country to see what they can learn from other districts’ examples. At the end of the school year, the students will make their suggestions for systemwide changes in Chicago Public Schools. It is Botello’s hope that “the recommendations of the young people would be implemented in some of those high schools but also throughout Chicago.”

Maria Degillo, a senior at Von Steuben High School and a lead researcher with VOYCE, believes students can be persuaded to stay in school if they believe it will lead to better things—for example, if they are inspired, as she was, to pursue higher education. After she graduates, Degillo plans to go to Northwestern Business College for an associate’s degree in massage therapy and then a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

“The great thing about school is it gives you the experience and the opportunities,” says Degillo, who became interested in sociology through her high school classes and an internship with Albany Park Neighborhood Council.

Botello anticipates the research work will benefit students such as Degillo by providing them with a challenge they are missing in their classes.

“Enough data out there says part of the reason students drop out is the lack of engagement, lack of rigor. They’re bored,” he says.

A $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Albany Park Neighborhood Council is funding the VOYCE project. The Gates Foundation has been supporting school districts’ efforts to increase graduation rates, particularly among minority students, for several years.

The youth perspective is important to raising graduation rates and why the Gates Foundation is interested in VOYCE, according to Eli Yim, a spokesperson for the Gates Foundation.

“This is a unique grant in that the students are the researchers,” he says. “I think we recognize, and a lot of people recognize, students are the key stakeholders in this.”

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