P-20 Network fosters collaboration for student success among school districts and community colleges

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, the Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network gathered at the NIU Holmes Student Center for a lively discussion of College and Career Pathways, work-based learning experiences and other initiatives designed to enhance student learning from pre-kindergarten through college and the workforce.

The P-20 Network, founded in 2014 with a mission to improve college and career readiness through regional collaboration, is made up of school districts, community colleges, state educational leaders, and NIU faculty and staff. The network meets regularly in person and on-line to develop solutions, build relationships and take action to implement statewide initiatives for student learning.

At the October meeting, the participants focused primarily on College and Career Pathways, which are school/business partnerships designed to connect students’ education with real-world career experiences. Each pathway represents a broad industry area, such as arts and communication, engineering and manufacturing, or health and human services. Although each pathway contains a wide range of specific job types, these jobs are connected by common skills and competencies.

As students move through their education, from late middle school through high school, they move from career awareness and exploration activities, such as shadowing a professional on the job or attending a job fair, to career development experiences, including internships and eventually paid apprenticeships. This application of knowledge to real-world contexts will typically result in deeper, longer-lasting retention of academic concepts and skills. Career exploration can also help students find their passions and connect those with a productive career, or even identify careers they are not interested in so they can pursue other paths. Also central to College and Career Pathways is the chance for students to more easily earn dual college credit while they complete high school, making the pathway to degrees smoother and less expensive.

“All people learn most deeply when they are intrinsically motivated to learn,” says Jason Klein, NIU director of P-20 Initiatives. “The College and Career Pathways provide an incredible framework by building a wide range of skills, including those that cut across all careers. They provide opportunities for students to solve real problems and learn the curriculum by tackling authentic issues. This helps all students learn more and typically engage in even higher-level, deeper thinking than we have in traditional classrooms.

“The P-20 Network is ideal for helping to implement these efforts,” Klein continues, “because, through the Network, school district, community college and university leaders come together alongside partners in state government and industry. Together, they can provide more opportunities for students to learn, earn useful workplace certifications, and move through colleges and universities in ways that are cost-effective and result in high levels of learning.”

“The P-20 Network provides support to our district and to the work we are doing for students,” says Jill Hlavacek, director of Innovation and Learning for Naperville Community Unit School District 203.

“The most important thing for me about the Network and specifically the work focused on integrating college and career learning for students, is that all the organizations involved are driving a conversation about skill preparation for students that includes a career focus, that is working to reduce barriers to success, and that is creating structures to support lifelong learning,” she continues. “We are changing the narrative of public education to focus on building a pipeline of talent to drive economic development in our communities.”

Travis McGuire, superintendent of Hinckley-Big Rock Community Unit School District 429, agrees that the focus on career preparation has been invaluable, especially the Postsecondary and Career Exploration (PaCE) Framework, a formal structure for implementing career pathways from eighth to 12th grade that enables college readiness, career exploration and financial literacy.

“The Illinois PaCE Framework has been critical to our career readiness work,” he says. “This resource alone has made our time and efforts in both engaging with and supporting the P-20 Network worthwhile. It has been a game changer.”

During the conference, participants had a chance to work in teams to brainstorm how to implement some of the specific steps of College and Career Pathways, especially team-based challenges, which are a state requirement for students who wish to earn an official career endorsement on their high school diploma. Educators also got an overview of two key statewide resources: the Career Development Toolkit, an important resource for helping school districts implement high quality internship opportunities for students, designed by NIU’s Education Systems Center; and the IllinoisPostSecondaryProfiles.com website, which provides critical information about institutions of higher education throughout Illinois, designed by NIU’s Illinois Interactive Report Cards Office in collaboration with the Illinois Community College Board and the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

However, participants overwhelmingly agreed that the chance to network and learn from one another has been the biggest benefit of the P-20 Network.

As NIU President Lisa C. Freeman notes, “It is inspiring to see how animated and engaged the P-20 participants have become over time. We have transitioned from committed individuals unsure of each other to a collaborative eager to promote a shared vision for change.”

“The best parts of these meetings, for me, is that there is always time allowed to network and learn from others in the room,” says Hlavacek. “Even informal conversations with other professionals make a big impact on moving our work forward.”

McGuire adds, “It is pivotal that all voices are at the table when discussing career readiness and preparing our students for their tomorrow. The ability to share our voice, hear other voices and collaboratively do this important work has helped us to better plan and prepare our students.”

To learn more about the Northern Illinois P-20 Network, visit niu.edu/p20network/ or contact Jason Klein at jason.klein@niu.edu.

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