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Scalable innovation: Regional P20 Network addressing top education challenges

September 20, 2017

What do 14 community colleges, 24 public school districts, a handful of state agencies and one major state university have in common?

They’re all members of the Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network, working together to increase the number of Illinoisans who obtain college degrees and professional certificates.  And when their leaders came together at NIU earlier this month, individual stories of institutional progress created a larger narrative about the power of collaboration.

NIU Acting President Lisa Freeman with some of the community college presidents attending last week’s Northern Illinois Regional P20 Network meeting at NIU. Left to right: David Sam, Elgin; Laurie Borowicz, Kishwaukee; Jerry Corcoran, Illinois Valley; Christine Sobek, Waubonsee; Joianne Smith, Oakton; Lisa Freeman, NIU; Judy Mitchell, Joliet; Mary-Rita Moore, Triton; David Hellmich, Sauk Valley.

“There are so many things that we can do better, faster and more efficiently when we work together,” said Waubonsee Community College President Christine Sobek. “If we’re going to be successful with our completion goals, we have to address our issues as a region.  We can meet individually with NIU to discuss articulation, dual credit, and the like, but it’s so much more effective to have the larger discussion with all of our peers and partners.  We’ve reduced a lot of redundancy through this network,” she added.

Sobek was one of a dozen community college presidents at the most recent Regional P-20 Network meeting.  Along with their P-12 and university partners, they tackled issues ranging from early childhood programs and career pathway preparation for high schoolers to reducing the need for remedial math in college and making all institutions more adult-learner-friendly.

NIU Acting President Lisa Freeman has participated in the Network since its inception three years ago.

“When we look at student success, we have to realize that it doesn’t start the day a student shows up at NIU,” she said.  “It starts with young children receiving proper nutrition and adequate preschool care and having parents who know how to get involved with their children’s education.  If we want to have well-prepared students from diverse backgrounds who are ready to participate in a global society, we have to start thinking about these things from the time a child enters pre-kindergarten.  That’s how NIU and other colleges and universities will receive students who are prepared to succeed.”

The Regional P20 Network’s unifying mission comes from a State of Illinois goal:  60 percent of all Illinois adults holding a high-quality degree or certificate by the year 2025.  Over the past three years, Network members have zeroed in on six areas for joint efforts:

  • Early childhood community collaborations to improve pre-school attendance and kindergarten readiness
  • Expansion of early college credit programs
  • Reducing the need for remedial math at the college level
  • Promotion of community-based activities to prepare students for college and career
  • Developing college and career pathways in four priority areas: health sciences, information technology, engineering/manufacturing, and finance/business services
  • Improving services for and success of adult learners

Network members have chosen emphases that match their school and college needs, and implement work plans that address those needs.  Regional progress is tracked through an online dashboard.

For Elgin Community College President David Sam, college readiness is a top concern.

“Anytime we can find ways to shorten the time students spend in college, we are saving them money,” Sam said.  “With national student debt now over a trillion dollars, we have to be creative in helping students quickly move through our systems so they can be valuable participants in our communities.  So I’m very interested in things like high school students being able to earn college credits, and fourth-year high school math classes that reduce the need for remediation in college.”

Lisa Freeman takes particular pleasure in how the network is creating innovation that can be copied by other regions and states.

“The great thing is that these new approaches are scalable and replicable,” she explained.  “And that’s getting the attention of foundations and corporations across the country.  One partnership that came out of this network involves NIU, Harper College, and Township High School District 211 in Cook County.  We jointly applied for funding from the Dell Corporation to support degree completion efforts, and have just learned that we are one of four teams selected, out of nearly 100 applicant teams.  When they interviewed us, it was clear that our participation in the P20 Network impressed Dell and convinced them that we were ready to innovate.”

The next meeting of the Network CEOs is scheduled for February.  In the meantime, participants will convene work groups to address the identified challenges.

“We’ve made real progress,” Freeman said.  “As leaders change and individual participants cycle in and out, the Network infrastructure is sustainable, and the focus stays on the success of our students.”

NIU’s P-20 Center manages the Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network.  For more information, contact Amy Jo Clemens at (815) 753-3942 or [email protected].