All of VOYCE’s work is driven by the belief that young people, who are most directly affected by issues of educational inequity, must be the ones to develop meaningful, long-lasting solutions.
Since its formation in 2007, VOYCE has worked towards increasing Chicago’s graduation rate by using youth-driven research and organizing to advance district-level policies that support student achievement. To lay the foundation for VOYCE’s campaigns, over a hundred youth conducted an in-depth, year-long Participatory Action Research (PAR) study on the root causes of the city’s 50% graduation rate. Based on the findings from this research, VOYCE launched the following campaigns:
Campaign for Safe and Supportive Schools. In the 2010-2011 school year, students lost 306,731 days of instruction due to disciplinary actions (94% for minor infractions). 324 students were suspended out of school every day, and 29 students were arrested in school every day. Black and Latino students receive these extreme and ineffective punishments over three times more frequently than their white peers.
VOYCE's campaign for safe and supportive schools is focused on ending exclusionary disciplinary practices that force students of color out of schools and into prisons, and investing instead in the research-based support systems that work better. Key campaign accomplishments include:
- The creation of a district working group to re-write the Student Code of Conduct that, with pressure from VOYCE, ended 10-day out-of-school suspensions for all but the most serious offenses.
- The release of a report with Advancement Project, “Failed Policies, Broken Futures: The True Cost of Zero Tolerance in Chicago” that analyzed CPS budgets and found that spending on harsh discipline far outstripped spending on research-based support systems. For example, CPS allocated $51.4M for school security guards and just $3.5M for college coaches.
- Over $200,000 in district funds distributed to neighborhood schools for a pilot project to increase social-emotional supports for at-risk freshmen.
Moving forward, VOYCE continues to campaign for systemic changes at the city, county and state level that will: 1) end extreme disciplinary practices at all publicly-funded schools, 2) increase public transparency in the school-level use of these measures, and 3) shift investments towards the student support systems that work better.
Campaign for Rigorous and Relevant Classrooms. VOYCE believes that in order to increase the graduation and college readiness rates, all students must have access to rigorous and relevant teaching and learning experiences. In order to impact the quality of teaching and learning and Chicago--and ultimately the extent of student engagement and investment--VOYCE has been working for the past three years to develop systematic ways to include student voice and student feedback into school- and district-level systems for improving instruction.
In 2012, VOYCE secured support from both CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union for a pilot of student surveys in the district’s new teacher evaluation framework being rolled out in the 2012-2013 school year. VOYCE was one of the first groups in the country to successfully work with the teachers union on this issue. Currently, the campaign is working with CPS and CTU to create a student task force that will guide the implementation, evaluation and improvement of the new teacher evaluation system, including student feedback measures, in the first two years of implementation.
The youth leaders of VOYCE have won significant recognition for their work towards educational justice. In 2009, VOYCE won the “Organizing Collaborative of the Year” award from the Chicago Community Trust and the national “Youth Activist Award” from the Schott Foundation. VOYCE also played a lead role in the U.S. Department of Education’s “Youth Voices in Action Summit” in 2011, where VOYCE was one of just seven groups invited to lead a best practices workshop and meet with Secretary Duncan. VOYCE’s work has also generated significant local and national media coverage in outlets such as The New York Times, National Public Radio, Education Week, and The Nation.