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Baker Report: Connecting the Dots

February 13, 2015

STEM DivasI hosted a meeting Tuesday of the Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network, a group of nearly 40 partners who are collaborating to improve college and career readiness. One school superintendent introduced himself by saying, “Every meeting I go to is full of bad news. What we are doing here is really positive. What a relief!”

NIU works diligently at developing and maintaining positive partnerships that make important things happen – now. We are committed to engagement, identifying shared problems and finding solutions that benefit all parties. Some of our partnership activities are short-term and small-scale. Others will have long-term effects on enrollment and economic development in our region.

During an editorial board meeting with the Northern Star Monday, I spoke about some of these initiatives.

  • NIU STEM Outreach was recently highlighted in the news for its efforts to inspire more girls to be interested in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Initiatives include STEM Divas in their bright pink hard hats, informing the community at STEM Cafés and teaching boys and girls at STEM Saturdays in DeKalb and Naperville.
  • The Intersections project combines literacy and art education to improve reading skills for bilingual elementary school students.
  • NIU students tutor fourth- through eighth-grade students to provide individualized learning experiences in an effort to increase academic achievement as part of the [email protected] eTutoring Program and high school students through STAR Tutoring at DeKalb High School.
  • Our public-private partnership, Econ Illinois, is the lead agency in the state’s Finance Learning Exchange, providing curricular and other resources to create interest in careers in finance and the preparation of high school students as they transition to post-secondary institutions and careers.

Econ Illinois logoThe Regional P-20 Network is a long-term, large-scale project. The network’s region includes much of northern Illinois, which contains urban, suburban and rural areas.

The overall goals are to produce an additional 30,000 college-ready students in our region over the next 10 years and to raise the number of residents holding post-secondary degrees or professional certificates to 60 percent by 2025. Currently, 44 percent of residents meet this standard, although the numbers vary from 56 percent in one community college districts to 25 percent in others.

More than 90 representatives from 30 educational institutions in the P-20 Network are collaborating to improve readiness for college and careers. They are participating in four work groups that are conducting joint research, establishing baseline data, organizing innovative pilot projects and faculty dialogues across the three levels and preparing position papers to address Illinois state policy problems.

Progress is being made, and on Tuesday we welcomed four new partners to the network, which continues to grow.

Understanding and providing comprehensive student support services is another priority of the P-20 Network. A needs assessment has been conducted to identify current strengths in programming at institutions across the region, as well as gaps that the network might address. Current indications are that there are many services and resources available to students, but a regional communications strategy for conveying the need to plan for and get help to complete a degree or professional certificate could have a big impact.

One priority is to reduce barriers to obtaining a degree by reducing course redundancy, so students don’t have to retake a course at NIU that is very similar to one taken before transferring. A policy paper is being developed that will propose alternative strategies for course articulation to state agencies in September. We’ve increased opportunities for students to complete associate degrees while taking NIU courses through reverse transfer agreements with six community colleges; 12 more such agreements are in the works. We are also clarifying pathways to completion of specific degrees by identifying courses students should take in high school, community college and then university. The Regional P-20 Network will be making a presentation to the Illinois P-20 Council in April on the network’s actions to reduce barriers to graduation.

Huskie statue with graduation capWe also want students to have the opportunity to graduate from high school with a head start of at least nine college credits and/or a professional certificate. We are in the process of collecting baseline data on “early college” credit for high schools in our region and will work with our partners to develop a tracking system. We also are researching and developing a model process for aligning high school and college curricula in terms of core competencies. As we finalize the model for dual credit courses aligned with State of Illinois standards, we will also create a new non-credit developmental course aligned with standards that could be taught in the senior year of high school or in community colleges.

Finally, we need to recognize the needs of adult learners, identifying gaps in bachelor degree completion programs for those with associate degrees and/or professional certifications as well as barriers for these students. Some of these obstacles include scheduling courses at inconvenient times and places, limited or no recognition for prior learning and lack of support services for students who cannot come to campus during the work day. Increasing the enrollment of adult learners is a key not only for NIU but for the state in meeting the goal of 60 percent of adults with high-quality degrees by 2025.

I sincerely appreciate the support and efforts of our educational partners in this important endeavor. An educated workforce is critical for our region to compete in the 21st century global economy. By working with our partners in state government, at community colleges, in school districts and with the business community, we can increase the number of students in the pipeline who are ready for college, giving NIU a larger recruiting pool while also bettering the lives of our citizenry.

I look forward to reporting the progress of these initiatives as we continue to advance the agenda.

Onward and upward,