Project REAL

Idea Leader: Stephanie Mayo

Location: Chicago, IL

Partner Organization: Albany Park Neighborhood Council

Project Summary: Stephanie Mayo, 17, was already engaged in the peer mentoring program with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) but knew there were other ways to support students. In addition to retreats and other events, Stephanie introduced the concept of a personalized graduation plan for each mentee that would track the progress of students reaching their personally determined goals.


VOYCE Makes a Move with Project REAL Goals

My name is Stephanie Mayo, and I am a senior at Roosevelt High School in Chicago, IL. This year, I worked with youth leaders from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) to develop Project REAL Goals, a personalized graduation planning (PGP) system to help freshmen get on track to graduate ready for college.

VOYCE is a multi-racial collaborative of youth from seven different organizations in Chicago that focuses on increasing the high school graduation rate and college readiness of CPS students. Through a partnership with Chicago Public Schools, we have designed a pilot project in which upperclassmen peer mentor freshmen students to assist them in transitioning into high school through social-emotional supports, relationship-building, and early planning for graduation, college and careers.

This year, our pilot project took place at eight Chicago high schools with 320 freshmen, 109 mentors (10th, 11th, 12th grade) and 39 school staff. As mentors, we meet with our freshmen mentees (the freshmen students) and focus on building a strong relationship with them to build a support system, so freshmen can have someone to go to when they need assistance with their educational and even social issues. Like Nicole Garcia, one of our VOYCE Mentees from Roosevelt High School said, “Having a VOYCE Mentor is a great opportunity to meet people that actually listen to my problems.”

Annually, we have two “Join Us in Creating Education (JUICE) Retreats” (one in the beginning of the year and one in the end of the year) with the freshmen and mentors. In order to get our freshmen mentees be a part of a college-going culture, we use our JUICE Retreats to discuss the different colleges they may attend and discuss social and emotional issues that may prevent the freshmen from attending college, like not having a support system at home or having to grow up at such a young age to take care of the family. By discussing the possible future our mentees have and the ways we have overcome similar obstacles they have, VOYCE Mentors encourage VOYCE Mentees to do better in school due to the fact that other students that were once in their position are going to college.

What distinguishes this year from last year is that, through Project REAL Goals, we incorporated personalized graduation planning into our retreats to get freshmen to plan ahead the next three years of high school as well as learn of the multiple activities they must participate in to make their dreams a reality. As one of our VOYCE Mentors from Roosevelt High School, Alan Zavala, claimed, “As I saw my VOYCE Mentor help me with my Project REAL Goals, I could see my future in college.”

As we executed Project REAL Goals in our retreats, we encountered a couple of troubles here and there. In addition to having freshmen use their personalized graduation plans in our JUICE Retreats, we wanted school counselors to use our format to assist freshmen when selecting their classes. Because counselors were overwhelmed with the work they already had, it was difficult for us to persuade them to use Project REAL Goals when they met with freshmen students. Therefore, our VOYCE Mentors kept up with our freshmen mentees personally to assist them whenever their future plans changed rather than having our school counselors try to talk to our VOYCE mentees about their plans.

Another problem we found with Project REAL Goals this year was that our plan to create a computerized way to keep track of mentees was more expensive than we thought. It would have cost $20,000 to develop a Facebook app and then we would not have had money for anything else in our budget. Like the trouble with our counselors, to make up for this change in plans we increased mentor contact with mentees to assist our freshmen mentees whenever their plans changed.

Despite these challenges, Project REAL Goals was beneficial when we discussed future planning with freshmen. The current format we have for Project REAL Goals is a creative one. On page one of Project REAL Goals is a blank area for freshmen to draw where they would like to see themselves in 2014 (their graduating year) along with an available space where freshmen write where they would like to be. But before our VOYCE Mentees fill the Cover Sheet (page one), the second page has an “I AM” poem to assist freshmen in decorating the cover of their personalized graduation plans with words from the “I AM” poem as well as draw pictures to express themselves.

Last, but not least, the third page is dedicated to listing three main steps freshmen mentees must take to make sure they are on track along with a list of recommendations from the VOYCE Mentors that elaborate on ways freshmen can build relationships with adults, relationships with students, and college readiness. In order for this document to be used productively, we designed it to be action-oriented and creative, which allows freshmen to plan their future right before their eyes with guidance from our VOYCE Mentors. By allowing our freshmen mentees plan their future creatively, our VOYCE Mentors interact with our mentees, resulting in strong bonds between our mentors and mentees.

In addition to bonding with our mentees, VOYCE mentees became so comfortable with making goals with our mentors that they signed consent forms that allowed us to keep up with them academically by having access to their grades.

Along with personalized graduation planning, VOYCE had other events that took place during the school year to keep our mentees engaged and on track. On top of a total of sixteen JUICE Retreats taking place in our eight VOYCE schools, VOYCE had a convention where we first introduced Project REAL Goals to our freshmen mentees, and at Gage Park High School, one of our eight VOYCE schools, there was a Freshmen Celebration that awarded the top 100 freshmen students for their hard work in school. Similarly, we had a Press Conference where the whole VOYCE collaborative announced the hard work our VOYCE students have done and called on voters in the community to think about educational issues when voting for a new mayor.

We also had a VOYCE Convening on April 15 with Chief Education Officer Charles Payne, in which 100 youth came together to discuss current issues in our education system, such as freshman supports. In addition to this citywide work, VOYCE also made sure that mentees and mentors met the high expectations laid out in Project REAL Goals. In Perspectives High School, for example, VOYCE took its mentees on a bus tour to visit some of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), like Spelman College, Tuskegee University, and Morehouse College, in order to set mentees on the path to college early. From her experience as a VOYCE Mentor in the HBCU College Tour, 11th-grader India Allen says that “seeing the [freshman's’] faces when they looked at these colleges was a great experience because most people don’t have the opportunity to go on these kinds of college trips.”

In addition to the work we have done with the Project REAL Goals, we have used the money received from the MyIdea Grant to fund youth leadership retreats and trainings, buy more flip cameras for our eight schools to keep track of our successes, and to design our new mentor t-shirts for the upcoming school year. Due to AT&T’s contribution to our Project, VOYCE has been able to do a lot of its successes this year. Thank you!