AI Amplifying Voices: Young People Taking Initiative in Their Education

Written by N’Kaela Webster and Shayaka Wilson, MCJ Amelior Foundation Fellows

The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been taking the world by storm and revolutionizing modern-day society. Although hesitation may be growing with the expanding use of AI, Cortico is tapping into its positive and beneficial applications. Think back to when you were in high school and middle school. Most school and education-based decisions were probably made for you, and as a young adult, your opinions may have gone unheard. Cortico is partnering with an organization called Opportunity Youth Network (OYN) to combat this challenge through the Newark Chronic Absenteeism project. They plan to leverage AI through the use of Fora by facilitating conversations that discuss absenteeism and why young people disengage from school.

A Proactive Approach to Exploring Root Causes of Absenteeism in Newark 

Absenteeism continues to be an issue in Newark, NJ as students are frequently missing school due to both excused and unexcused absences. According to Rochana Jackson, the executive director of the Newark Board of Education Office of Policy, Planning, Evaluation, and Testing, chronically absent students are those who miss 2-3 days in a month. Meanwhile, severely chronically absent students are those who miss 3.5 or more days of school in a month. With this definition applied, 37% to 53% of students in Newark high schools are chronically or severely chronically absent from school.1 Addressing absenteeism is critical for ensuring all students have the opportunity to succeed and thrive in their education. 

The pandemic presented us with an opportunity to recognize the significant learning loss that students are experiencing which, in some cases, increased student disengagement. The Newark Chronic Absenteeism project is a proactive initiative that aims to hear directly from youth using the Fora platform to delve deeper into the stories and scenarios behind why young people in the city are frequently absent from school. Throughout the project timeline, we, the community engagement fellows will lead the project through four distinct phases: skills-building, implementation, analysis, and presentation.

In the skills-building phase, we are collaborating with members of OYN’s Youth Policy Advisory Board (YPAB) to make connections to existing research and create discussion prompts to facilitate conversations with young people. During the implementation phase, we will record 25 conversations with Newark youth within the OYN network to gain insight into their experiences and understand why chronic absenteeism is such a pervasive issue. In the analysis phase, we will discuss common themes that emerge, using the AI-generated Fora platform to analyze these conversations. The project will culminate in a presentation of key takeaways to be shared with stakeholders and decision-makers, who inform policies, to help address chronic absenteeism in Newark.

Providing a Safe Space for Powerful Young Voices

We believe that one of the best ways to support young people is to ask them directly what they need to ensure a successful education. The proliferating rates of young people’s absence and disconnection from school is the main issue this project aims to address. We have confidence that if students are provided with a safe and non-judgmental environment to express their reasons for disengagement and be heard, then decision-makers (school board, teachers, parents, etc.) can find better solutions to support youth. Using Cortico’s AI Fora platform “enables partner organizations to understand their communities’ lived experiences, amplify typically underheard voices, inform public understanding, and drive better policy and decisions.”2 The platform captures and analyzes conversations to gain insight into community perspectives while maintaining the authenticity of individuals’ voices and keeping their stories intact. Facilitating these conversations during the implementation phase encourages the greater Newark community to take heed of what young people have to say and consequently reevaluate current policies.

The skepticism surrounding the rise of artificial intelligence in modern society is understandable. A common concern with AI is that the human mind can potentially be silenced and replaced. While that may sound daunting, this project will combat this very issue. The Newark Chronic Absenteeism initiative provides youth with a safe, accessible environment to freely speak their minds. The Fora platform proves that AI has the potential to address complex social issues like absenteeism and allow voices to be heard.

The Alarming Statistics Behind Youth Disconnection

At a recent skills-building workshop we explored reasons why youth disconnect from school with YPAB members. We began by sharing national statistics that shed light on this issue. One particularly alarming statistic was that 38% of students who disengage from school in America do so because of poor grades or failing. Another statistic showed that a significant number of students are pushed out of their school environments due to suspension (16.9%) or expulsion (9.9%).3 These numbers raise an important question: what role do school leaders play in students’ engagement and connection to their education?

During our discussion, YPAB members shared stories that highlighted the pressures students face causing them to be pushed or pulled out of school. Some students feel pressure from their families to stay in school, while other students feel forced to leave school to provide support for their families. These stories and statistics illustrate the urgent need for action. We are committed to facilitating conversations with the use of AI and listening to young people about their lived experiences and perspectives. At the conclusion of this project, these stories will be presented to officials who specialize in education policy work in hopes to evoke change in the current education system and ensure future young people remain engaged in school.

Listen and Comprehend to Amplify Youth Voices

Ultimately, this project allows the unheard voices of young people to no longer be silenced through the utilization of AI. The desired outcome of these conversations has the potential to influence policy decisions in Newark and possibly beyond. We have already witnessed immense engagement and passion while facilitating workshops with the YPAB members, and are excited to continue this project throughout the year. Biweekly we are surrounded by agents of change who have identified reasons why students are disconnected or absent from school as well as several areas of growth within the school system. This matters because as the statistics show, there is something that needs to be done to better support young people. We must understand that young people are the future, and it is our job to authentically listen, listen, listen! So, we leave you with a few things to keep in mind: get excited about the wonderful ideas the next generation has about reducing absenteeism and be open-minded about the beneficial applications of AI.

  1 Bonamo, Mark. “Newark Public Schools’ History of Chronic Absenteeism Appears to Be Making a Widespread Comeback.” TAPinto Newark , 21 Nov. 2022,

  2“Local Voices Network.” Cortico, 24 Mar. 2022,

 3“Why Students Drop Out.” National Dropout Prevention Center,

Subscribe to Our Newsletter
Join Our Community
Cortico is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization led by a multidisciplinary team of experts in community engagement, technology and non-profit management. We strive to meld two elements not typically found in one space: technological innovation and community-centered advocacy. We'd love to keep you up to date on what we're doing!