Past winners

The Woods Fund Chicago Power of Community Award

Albany Park Neighborhood Council for The VOYCE Project

Several years ago, with the graduation rate among CPS high school students deteriorating toward 50 percent, a small group of student and community leaders began meeting about what some called the “school- to-prison pipeline.”

In 2007, with Albany Park Neighborhood Council taking the lead, a collaborative called Voices for Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) was formed along with Action Now Institute, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and Southwest Organizing Project. Meeting regularly with Albany Park organizer Jose I. Sanchez, a half-dozen students from each neighborhood started by researching why so many kids were “dropping out.”

Turned out thousands of students were being suspended or expelled for often questionable reasons, or “counseled-out” by advisors. They also discovered that CPS and CPS-funded charter schools lacked a detailed and accessible reporting system for suspensions and dismissals, which is why their first public campaign called for creation of such a system statewide.

By knocking on the right doors, going to the right legislative hearings and – when necessary – striking the right tone at public demonstrations, VOYCE last spring helped pass SB-2793. The law requires publicly-funded schools statewide to report their number of suspensions and expulsions with breakdowns by race, gender, language and special-ed status. CPS, meanwhile, adopted a new Student Code of Conduct that ends two-week, out-of-school suspensions for minor offenses, cuts maximum suspension time, and ends in-school arrests for disorderly conduct.

What’s next? Working again with State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, VOYCE is closing in on passage of SB-3004 to forbid both “counseling out” and imposition of monetary fines, and to set statewide standards for suspensions and expulsions.

Not bad for a bunch of teenagers. Especially when one considers the CPS graduation rate, perhaps not coincidentally, is now approaching 70 percent.