Collaboration and Hope Curb Violence in Aurora, Illinois

Sixth Graders

Inspired by a presentation they heard from Aurora-based Cabot Microelectronics, a “Pathways to Prosperity” partner, a group of sixth-graders designed the “Best Illinois Middle School App” in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Photo courtesy of West Aurora School District 129.

As we strive nationally to make communities safer, Aurora, Ill. has made some headway, and education is a key component. Over the past decade, the population of the nearly-200,000-strong city surged almost 40 percent while its violent crime rate significantly fell, with no murders in 2012. Mayor Tom Weisner credited his city’s safety progress to strong collaboration among law enforcement agencies, education, public works, and other public and private entities at the recent launch of Aurora’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative.

“We’ve been implementing, enhancing and growing programs that give our young people productive alternatives to gang activity,” said Weisner, who noted that Aurora’s anti-violence efforts were sparked by a brutal trend that reached its height in 2002, with 26 primarily gang-related murders in the city.

The mayor said it’s crucial for “kids to be able to see themselves as being successful” to give them hope. Recognizing that “the goal of getting a 4-year degree isn’t for everyone,” Aurora participates in Harvard University’s “Pathways to Prosperity” initiative, which develops career pathways for students to jobs in high-growth fields through collaborations between businesses and education. Pathways to Prosperity’s Illinois initiative will utilize resources of Illinois Pathways, a closely-aligned program that received ED Race to the Top funding awarded to the state in December 2011.

Columbia College Student Alex Perez

Columbia College student Alex Perez teaches elementary students how to tie neckties during a monthly Boys II Men “Juniorversity” session. Photo courtesy of Boys II Men.

Pathways to Prosperity aims to increase and enhance programs like Aurora West High School’s Health Sciences Career Academy, created 15 years ago to prepare students for careers in the high-growth healthcare industry. Aurora health occupations teacher April Sonnefeldt said the program has helped prepare many students to get certification for jobs like entry-level nursing positions, and has given “others the confidence to go all the way through med school.”

The mayor also praised non-profit Boys II Men for “teaching young men to respect themselves.”  Inspired by grief and frustration from the 2002 murders, the Aurora-based mentoring organization has been replicated internationally. While Jared Marchiando — a founding Boys II Men member and its first president — is now a college graduate working in finance, he’d previously been “going down that road towards gangs.”

“I needed positive male role models, and some discipline, and I got that through Boys II Men,” said Marchiando, who remains actively involved with the organization. He encourages students and parents to celebrate positive academic outcomes, like “most improved student” as much as sports achievements. He also emphasizes the importance of reaching out to students before their teens, noting that, “if you don’t reach kids by 3rd or 4th grade, it’s often too late.”

An early learning initiative, SPARK (Strong, Prepared And Ready for Kindergarten), was launched in 2012 and aims to build positive education environments for Aurora’s youngest children in both structured settings and in homes. Supported by four school districts, Fox Valley United Way, the city of Aurora and the Dunham Fund, SPARK also will benefit from Illinois’ Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant received in December.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we need to remain vigilant,” said Weisner, sadly noting that a 14-month period of no murders in Aurora ended with the recent killing of a teen. “Most kids turn to crime and to gangs when they don’t have hope.”

–Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.