As a mentor and education advocate, I can say that a year ago, much of the content that’s in Stand’s “Stop Illinois Brain Drain” report was over my head. I didn’t really understand much of it, but I was interested in learning more and finding ways to fix the educational problems in our state.

The 2017-2018 Policy Fellowship helped me do just that. For the better part of a year, parents, educators, and community leaders like me – from all across the state – joined calls to discuss the issues impacting high school success in our state. We learned the issues. We talked to the experts. We picked their brains and asked them the tough questions. We discussed amongst ourselves recommendations to help put a plug in Illinois’ brain drain.

One issue that piqued my interest was individualized coursework. It might not sound like much, but we learned that courses tailored to students’ individual needs and career pathways are one of the best ways to bring Illinois high school education into the twenty-first century.

Next, competency-based learning allows students to advance towards graduation by demonstrating they have mastered the knowledge or skills to meet benchmarks instead of following the traditional approach of passing specific classes. Dual credit and Advanced Placement share a common goal of giving students a jumpstart on their post-high school education by earning college credits while still in high school. Dual credit courses establish partnerships between a school and an individual college or university. Although courses and costs vary, they allow students to earn credit in a particular career pathway. AP courses are more difficult than regular high school classes, and students become eligible for college credit by taking a standardized exam at the end of the school year.

In order to improve high school education for all Illinois students in this area of individualized coursework, Stand fellows suggested in the Stop Illinois Brain Drain report to:

  • Build more cross-community partnerships and expand course access. Districts and community colleges should pool their resources and offer more specialized courses to students. Partnerships don’t have to be 1:1; they can join forces with neighboring districts and community colleges. Check out the report for numerous examples of successful partnerships already in existence throughout Illinois. Good models exist – we just need more of them.
  • Utilize the Illinois Virtual School to increase access to dual credit, AP, and other advanced courses. IVS was established to supplement – not replace – the education provided by schools. Each IVS course is taught by a licensed teacher, aligns with statewide standards, and offers credit to students. IVS offers 12 AP courses and several advanced courses. However, for rural schools that don’t offer one AP course, IVS could open the door to AP classes for their students. To clear that path, a few hurdles need to be addressed:
    • Policymakers need to address the inequity of IVS enrollment by requiring IVS tuition to follow a sliding pay scale based on a district’s funding adequacy levels.
    • Increase access to broadband internet for every school.
    • Offer more dual credit courses through IVS.
  • Increase the number of teachers for dual credit courses. Districts and community colleges should take two important steps to accomplish this: maximize their professional development plan agreements to provide a pathway for teachers to become qualified to teach dual credit; and develop a model partnership agreement between high schools and community colleges for dual credit programs.
  • Encourage innovation. Our state policymakers can incentivize districts to test competency-based learning approaches by funding small grants for participating districts. After that, districts should explore alternatives for students who aren’t suited for the traditional approach. Learning – and earning high school credits – shouldn’t be bound by four walls and the school calendar.

There is a lot more to these issues, so I encourage you to read the full Stop Illinois Brain Drain report. Be on the lookout for more summaries like this one from other Stand Policy Fellows, to help break down the recommendations of the report.

As a former teacher who recently left the classroom, I know I will never leave behind the education issues I care about. So when I began to explore my role as an advocate outside of the classroom, one program that jumped out at me was Stand’s Policy Fellowship. The detailed policy discussions, the conversations with advocates from across the state, and the chance to advocate and influence policy discussions all piqued my interest. The Fellowship has expanded my understanding of civic and political advocacy.

The 2017-2018 Fellowship focused on student college and career readiness in Illinois. While the majority of my previous work centered around elementary education, this experience allowed me to explore the opposite end of the education system.

Stand’s policy team provided regular informational workshops surrounding the impacts of the Post-Secondary Workforce Readiness (PWR) Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Additionally, we engaged with community members, elected officials, and experts in the field who deepened our understanding of the postsecondary landscape in Illinois – and where advocates like us could make a difference.

One conversation that I particularly enjoyed was with Katharine Gricevich of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. Her discussion on higher education access and affordability resonated with my interest in advancing opportunities and outcomes for students from underserved areas.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Illinois Capitol with other Stand Fellows. While in Springfield we spoke with legislators about student college and career readiness. During these conversations, I was excited to learn that legislators were interested in hearing my perspective as a former educator. These discussions further encouraged my passion for advancing teacher voice and influence within political discourse.

As I reflect on these impactful conversations and experiences as a Stand Fellow, I am excited and motivated to continue my advocacy efforts.

Before participating in the Stand Fellowship, I was unsure of how to scale my advocacy impact. Now I am eager to continue my civic and political engagement efforts in support of educational excellence and equity.

I also hope to stay connected with Stand’s work in Illinois and the Fellows across the state. Their passion for education has deeply impacted my own work and approach to advocacy. I know that my advocacy will continue and that I will remain engaged with these issues in the future.

Last month, Stand for Children Policy Fellows Cymone Card, Abby Schultz, Dovie Shelby, and Kayla Valenti joined Stand staff on a visit to the state capital. This was a prime opportunity for the Fellows to meet up and make a difference together at the Capitol and also attend an insightful event that evening. While in Springfield, the group toured the Capitol building and had a chance to meet with several legislators to discuss education policy. That evening, the group attended a forum on school improvement hosted by Advance Illinois in partnership with other organizations, including Stand. At the forum, Rockford Public Schools, having received national recognition for developing community-aligned career academies, joined a panel discussion to share lessons from their own success.

Three of the Fellows, Abby, Kayla, and Cymone, shared their stories from the day. We hope you enjoy them and learn more about their advocacy and commitment to improving education in Illinois.

The atmosphere of Springfield was abuzz with the adrenaline and the anticipation of state government. We Fellows entered the stoic Capitol building with one eye on the décor and the other on the policy makers. Aimee and Jessica [ed note: Stand’s Policy & Government Affairs Manager and Government Affairs Director, respectively] guided us through the building, trying to connect us to our representatives and answering our many questions. With their help, I had the absolute pleasure in meeting State Senator Biss, whose down-to-earth approach to an (admittedly) giddy citizen (i.e. me) only increased my admiration of him. Meeting him, along with other elected officials, put a human side to politics. After all, the names behind policies are people, like me and like you. State government can be so accessible to Illinoisans if we know where to look–and if we take the time to reach out.

After touring the Capitol and meeting some inspirational people, the legislator forum on cradle to career education only added to this wonderful experience. Rockford has felt the effects of urbanization in its community, especially with Chicago so nearby. What their school board has done is quite innovative: investing in time, money, and community-centered opportunities in their high school students. By investing in their younger citizens, Rockford is giving students the incentive to stay in the area and use their talents to build their community as they delve into their post-secondary education and career. I hope to see other communities all around the U.S. do the same. By investing in education, by giving youth opportunities to start their post-secondary lives through accessible and affordable means, communities will thrive. Let’s hope Rockford is only the beginning of the ripple in connecting students to community.

–Abby Schultz

As a former fifth-grade teacher, I often wondered about how decisions regarding education were made. There were many political decisions and initiatives that had a direct impact on my classroom, however, I felt unsure of how to navigate conversations surrounding the complexities of the policy-making process. My experience as a Stand Policy Fellow has allowed me to develop the confidence to participate in an area that once felt overwhelming and intimidating. Traveling to Springfield and meeting with legislators at the Capital has motivated me to be a more active citizen and voice my opinions and concerns regarding education. I look forward to continuing my engagement in political discourse and advocacy-work that supports policies that best serve students. Whether that means setting up an appointment to meet with a representative, or further developing my own understanding of specific policies, I feel more confident to advocate for high-quality education in Illinois.

–Kayla Valenti

My time in Springfield was eye opening. I have been losing hope about the progress our country is making around education. However, my time in Springfield left me energized and excited. I was able to listen to wonderful speakers discuss how they collaborate to better the outcomes for children. Rockford is using an impressive model that brings different parts of the community together. One thing I have learned is that there is not a one size fits all solution for education. For example, what might work in New York City or Chicago may not work for Rockford or East St. Louis. Members of a community should learn from other communities that are successful. From there, a community can have a real conversation on what will work for their specific community. Collective impact can regenerate a community, and have very real and lasting impacts for children.

–Cymone Card