Your NPR news source
Corliss High School junior Mentrell Blackman in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2023

Corliss High School junior Mentrell Blackman says being on his school’s student voice committee showed him he had ‘power and strength.’

Manuel Martinez

As Chicago students work to improve their schools, they’re finding their voice along the way

Inside a classroom at Juarez High School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood this fall, students are serious as they craft a letter about the attitude and tone of some security guards, which they say creates a bad climate in the hallways.

They are proposing a meeting with the head of security and the dean. The adviser has told them to approach it diplomatically.

“First we just want to hear their side of the story,” says Kayla Romero, one of the students. “Maybe a kid’s doing something wrong in the hallways, and that’s causing them to be aggressive. So that’s why we will also want to see their perspective.”

The students say they’ll use the information to come up with a plan with administrators to address the issue.

Gruff security is a common complaint in high schools, and one many teens feel they have to live with. But these students are confident they can make a change.

They are part of Juarez’s “student voice committee,” which meets regularly to tackle the question: What needs to be improved? Nearly every Chicago public high school, and even some elementary schools, have a committee as part of a broader effort in the school district to change its approach toward civics education.

The Democracy Solutions Project

The problem: The number of Americans who vote is low and apathy is high.

One possible solution: Many states require students to take civics education, with the goal of equipping them to be civically-engaged adults. But what kind of civics ed works? Chicago is betting on “student voice committees,” which give students a say in issues at their schools — and can show them at an early age what a difference their voice can make.

Over the last several years, CPS has shifted beyond a narrow focus on learning the ins and outs of government and toward helping students experience what it is like to get involved and create change.

Just last year, CPS created a separate department on student voice and engagement, which includes the student voice committees. A central goal is to “elevate active participation in our democracy,” according to the district’s description.

“Participating in civic life isn’t necessarily something you can just study about. You have to experience and to develop those skills and competencies,” says Heather Van Benthuysen, who was executive director of CPS’ student voice and engagement until she moved out of state this summer. She says CPS is seen as a leader in participatory civics education.

Still, there are questions about whether civics education does any good, says Anthony Fowler, a University of Chicago professor who works with the university’s Center for Effective Government. Despite a requirement in many states for schools to offer civics ed, including in Illinois, few Americans vote, apathy is high and researchers have yet to figure out how to change that, Fowler says.

Fowler notes that better civics education is often found in schools with more affluent students, who have more agency and are often more involved civically, though it’s unclear whether civics ed is responsible for that. CPS, with its new approach to civics education, set out to interrupt this “civic empowerment gap” between wealthy and lower-income school districts and spread quality civics ed across a district where most students come from low-income families.

Students and adults in Chicago say they’re seeing the benefits. The student voice committees really took off under former CEO Janice Jackson, who believed that listening to student ideas could result in better schools, Van Benthuysen said. Mary Beck, CPS’s Deputy Chief of Teaching and Learning, says CPS became more committed during the pandemic, when at-home learning required student help and buy-in.

“The pandemic helped teachers understand that students had answers, and students had ways of figuring out creative solutions,” she says.

To see how student voice committees work, WBEZ visited several schools and witnessed the big and small ways they offer powerful lessons for students about agency and engagement.

Vaughn High School: “We are the ones in control”

At a little after 7 a.m. about 20 students sit in a circle. Jacob, a young man with wavy dark brown hair, holds the talking stick and has everyone’s full attention as he explains why the student voice committee at Vaughn wants a school vending machine.

“We figured that we had never had a vending machine here at our school and that at other schools they had them” says Jacob. WBEZ isn’t using Jacob’s last name to protect his privacy.

Vaughn Occupational High School on the Northwest Side serves 14- to 22-year-olds with cognitive and developmental disabilities. The students brought their demand to the local school council and also presented it to the mayor and CPS’s CEO when they toured the school earlier this year. And, on the spot, the leaders promised to deliver a vending machine.

Kelly Fischer, a teacher who advises the committee, says it’s amazing to see these students win.

“Often they are not asked what they think. They’re not asked, ‘What would make this better?’ ” she says. “They’re given options for things that other people feel will make their lives better.”

She says the message that they lack agency can follow them into adulthood, discouraging them from voting or being civically engaged.

Students gather at 7 a.m. at Vaughn Occupational High School's student voice committee in October.

Students, including a young man named Jacob on the left, at Vaughn Occupational High School’s student voice committee show up at 7 a.m. once a week so they can have a say in what happens in their school.

Sarah Karp

Ali Barto, another adviser, adds that these teens and young adults also lack places to talk about their challenges. “We’ve had students share really personal things they’re going through and other students have stood up and been like, ‘I’m here for you,’ ” she says.

The students regularly praise each other, with finger snaps or words of encouragement. When one young man takes the talking stick, but then looks down and can’t find the words, several cheer him on. Eventually he whispers a response to a friend who then tells the group.

Jacob says being in this space is a dream.

“I love being a part of this group because we are the ones in control of this,” he says. “And we decide what we get to do around the school and how we can improve it to make it a better place.”

His peers snap their fingers in support. He then looks around and tells them, “I love you.”

Nightingale Elementary: The importance of celebrating birthdays

Dean of Students Meaghan Esposito tells her middle school students they will spend their afternoon “freedom dreaming.”

“What would you like to have in here?” she asks. “What would be ideal for you? Think about student-teacher relationships. Think about classes we could offer. Think out of the box.”

Student Joel Abraham works on a 'freedom dreaming' exercise at Chicago's Nightingale Elementary.

Seventh grader Joel Abraham works on his ‘freedom dreaming’ poster board that features ideas for improving his school, Nightingale Elementary.

Sarah Karp

Esposito says younger children are also rarely asked how to improve their school so a creative activity can help. She has students in small groups cutting out magazine pictures that represent things they want and pasting them on poster boards.

Esposito says the elementary school created a student voice committee during the pandemic. Their first task: Create a video with students sharing ideas about how to get kids more engaged in learning.

She worried teachers might write it off or be annoyed when she presented it at a training. Instead, they were grateful, she says.

The student voice committee has given school staff other valuable insights since then, like the best ways to assess student knowledge. Rather than paper-based tests, they recommended mock trials or presentations.

And during the freedom dreaming exercise, they shared what really matters to them.

One seventh grade boy carefully pastes a picture of a cupcake onto his board. He wants the school’s cafeteria to make cupcakes for students on their birthdays.

“When I was in third grade, I never had an actual party,” he says. “My parents didn’t have enough money to buy because they already paid the bills.”

Corliss High School: “You need to put yourself out there”

Brenda Vences, a junior at Corliss Early College STEM High School in Roseland, says she had to be convinced to join the student voice committee. But now that she’s part of it, she’ll never go back to being silent.

“A closed mouth doesn’t get fed so you really got to speak on what you need, what you want,” she says. “You need to get out of that comfort zone. You need to put yourself out there.”

When the Corliss student voice committee gathered last year, the teens talked about issues that come up a lot, like dirty smoked out bathrooms. But something else was also weighing on their minds.

For years, Corliss seemed left behind as it lost enrollment and programming.

Junior Mentrell Blackman says his friends gave him a hard time when he said he was enrolling in Corliss. “They were like, ‘Oh you go to that crappy school … ha ha ha.’ ”

That felt terrible, he says.

Corliss Early College STEM High School junior Brenda Vences at a student voice committee meeting on Oct. 19, 2023.

As part of the Corliss High School student voice committee, junior Brenda Vences and others initiated a campaign to show the community all their school had to offer.

Manuel Martinez

Brenda says Corliss High School gets lumped in with a stereotype about South Side high schools being full of gangs and drugs.

Mentrell and Brenda say their student voice committee wanted to show that wasn’t true to other young people and the community. They created a public campaign that included a video, social media and billboards.

Sheila Sterling, the dean who advises the committee, set up meetings with the principal and CPS’s CEO. The group won a $40,000 marketing grant from CPS.

They created a video with the theme, “Corliss is elite.” It features a young man, whose dreads are dyed Corliss gold, giving a tour of the school. Among the highlights are a maker’s lab with a state-of-the-art 3D printer and a drone simulator. A few years ago, Corliss was named an early college STEM school.

The video went viral, and Mentrell and other students wound up on billboards advertising the school.

The students and Sterling believe the opinion about Corliss is changing. They haven’t seen an impact on enrollment yet, but Sterling says she expects an uptick as it catches on.

Regardless, the campaign made the students feel better about the school. It gave them faith in their ability to make a change.

“I felt hopeless when I felt nobody could hear me or hear my ideas,” Mentrell says. “So just knowing that I have the power and strength to do that makes me happy.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on X @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

The Latest
The tension around taking on debt and the pension payment was the crux of a month-long delay of the school system’s budget proposal, which came out Wednesday.
CPS officials say cuts to staffing and other areas, among other initiatives, are needed to balance the budget this month. It’s unclear what path Johnson might take to fill the hole.
Northeastern Illinois University allows working adults to showcase their skills and earn a degree but financial limitations blunt the impact.
If this budget passes the Board of Education on July 25, another deficit is expected later this year once the school district reaches a contract deal with the Chicago Teachers Union.
Students admitted to a CPS elementary gifted program based on this test are three times more likely to get into a coveted CPS’ selective high school, a WBEZ analysis finds.