Education + Industry + Race to the Top = Pathways to Good Jobs in Illinois

Just a few years ago, Alegandro Barrera thought he’d continue working at a local grocery store after graduating from high school in Wheeling, Ill.  It wasn’t a bad option, but he felt like he had no other choices.  But then, Wheeling High School’s advanced manufacturing program showed him that he “could do more and be more,” through its innovative partnership with local industries and career certification opportunities. Now Barerra says he has a great-paying full-time job as a machinist, studies computer science part-time at Harper College, and feels in control over his future.

“It’s good to be me,” Barrera exclaimed to more than 300 business, government and education leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn at the launch of lllinois Pathways earlier this year in Bloomington, Ill.  Illinois Pathways is a Race to the Top (RTTT)-funded initiative that pulls together the state’s public K-12 schools and colleges with businesses, to develop career paths in the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

Similar partnerships through Illinois Pathways will partner K-12 schools, businesses and higher education to provide students with hands-on training and early college opportunities for nine STEM career clusters.  Funded with $3.2 million of the $42.8 million RTTT funding awarded to Illinois, the initiative works to boost enrollment in STEM programs through public-private statewide networks called Learning Exchanges in each career cluster.

Wheeling High School junior Aline Bardak discusses how her school’s Career Pathways program enabled her to become a certified nursing assistant.

With Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn looking on, Wheeling High School junior Aline Bardak discusses how her school’s Career Pathways program enabled her to become a certified nursing assistant.

The idea was hatched in 2009 when Illinois applied for the first round of the RTTT competition. While Illinois was not awarded funding in the first two phases of RTTT, the state’s high performance earned it a share of the $200 million granted in the program’s 3rd phase, along with six other states.

“We were actually done a favor, not having won in the first two rounds of RTTT,” said Rick Stephens, a senior vice president for Chicago-based Boeing Co. and chairman of the Illinois Business Roundtable, which helped to develop the initiative. “It allowed all the constituents of the state to come together in a proposal that truly made sense.”

Other Pathways partners include the Governor’s P-20 Council and Advance Illinois, an education advocacy organization.  Six state agencies were also vital to establishing the initiative and make up its Interagency Committee:  Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Community College Board, Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Student Assistance Commission, and the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

Stephens says that employers have a lot to gain from RTTT-funded initiatives that aim to better prepare students to succeed in college and careers.  He notes that “we don’t have a labor shortage, but we do have a skills shortage” with about 125,000 jobs that today are going unanswered in Illinois. He adds that the Pathways effort is important to industry to ensure that new employees “not only have tech knowledge but soft-skills knowledge,” like relating to others in the workplace and critical thinking. “This is what happens when you have real, hands-on training: When you graduate from school you can go get a job, or go on to college.”

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have received RTTT grants.  Initially developed with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds in 2009 to implement transformational reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country, Congress has approved RTTT funds each successive year. On May 22, ED announced a new Race to the Top District competition that is aimed squarely at the classroom level with a focus on the relationship between teachers and students.

Julie Ewart is the director of communications and outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office