Recap: Legislator Forum emphasizes power of communities coming together around education
Improving schools has often been thought of as the responsibility of the education system and the school community. But when school improvement takes place through a multi-sector, collective effort, schools thrive and students succeed as a result.
That was the message of the Seventh Annual Legislator Forum, which took place on April 11 at the State House Inn in Springfield. More than 100 education leaders, including nine legislators, attended the event, themed “School Improvement from the Ground Up.” The Forum arrived as Illinois implements a new plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for providing supports to schools.
“We chose this theme because with ESSA we have a tremendous opportunity to ensure that all of our schools can achieve excellence,” said Ginger Ostro, Executive Director of Advance Illinois. “We recognize that the power of communities coming together is a potent force.”
The event featured the work of the Illinois 60 by 25 Network, including 13 communities from across the state, as a collective impact, cross-sector model toward improved student success. The efforts of business and community stakeholders in one of those communities, Rockford, have received national recognition for developing career academies in high schools. Rev. Dr. K. Edward Copeland, Founding Governing Board Chairman, Alignment Rockford, and Board Member, Advance Illinois, Anisha Grimmett, Executive Director, Alignment Rockford, and Dr. Ehren Jarrett, Rockford Public Schools superintendent, served as panelists.
“It’s been slow, tough, painstaking work, but what’s happened, the biggest success, is that the community has come together to support our schools. Everyone feels differently about the work,” said Dr. Jarrett. “Everyone rolled up their sleeves to say ‘What can we do to turn this thing around together?'”
“We recognized we could keep polishing up some old tires or we could put new tires on with some tread on them,” said Rev. Copeland, who also serves as pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Rockford. “We found a way to scale up and made it be part of the schools in Rockford.”
“I am the result of when a business community partners with schools as to what can happen,” said Grimmett, who spoke of growing up in Rockford and an internship that led to a long career in aerospace.
The event’s keynote speaker was Dr. Nancy Zimpher, former Chancellor of the State University of New York, the nation’s largest comprehensive system of public higher education, and a respected leader in collective impact. Dr. Zimpher shared experiences from SUNY and her time as president of the University of Cincinnati, emphasizing the importance of data to collective impact.
“The most important part of convening a community table is setting goals and indicators,” Dr. Zimpher said. “Focus on data and outcomes is what will ultimately move the dial. In Cincinnati, the arrows are moving up and trending positive.”
The examples shared at the Forum provided new perspective on ways to provide school supports. Schools cannot be expected to improve themselves on their own, as event attendees noted afterward.
“The degree of community engagement in turning around a school district like Rockford was enlightening,” said Rep. Robert Pritchard, Republican spokesperson on two House Education Committees. “Such efforts take not only effective school administration, leadership, focus and persistence, but also engagement of citizens and local businesses. All school districts and advocates would benefit by examining this case study and implementing relevant components.”
Partners for the event include Advance Illinois, Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, Chicago Urban League, East Side Aligned, Equity First Superintendents, Illinois 60 by 25 Network, Illinois Association of School Administrators, Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Community College Board, Illinois Education Association, Illinois Manufacturers Association Education Foundation, Illinois PTA, Illinois Student Assistance Commission, Illinois State Board of Education, Latino Policy Forum, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network, Ounce of Prevention Fund, Quad County Urban League, Real Learning for Real Life Coalition, Springfield Urban League, Stand for Children, Tri-County Urban League, United Way, University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.