“Within the next six years, 89 percent of jobs in Illinois’ fastest-growing sectors will require some education or training beyond high school. Yet, we have 41,000 dropouts per year from our high schools. One out of every four students who start freshman year drop out; two of the four will graduate but not go on for much higher education; and only one of those four will get out of high school with the skills to really excel,” stated Robin Steans, Executive Director of Advance Illinois, who was in Effingham to explore ideas of what could be done in rural Illinois to help turn these alarming statistics around.
Advance Illinois is a non-partisan, non-profit that is focused upon improving the educational and resulting work experience of all Illinoisans. It is chaired by former Governor Jim Edgar, the best governor we’ve had in our state in my lifetime, and Bill Daley, former Secretary of Commerce and brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Joe Fatheree, last year’s IL Teacher of the Year and Effingham educator who I’ve written about in the past, is one of the fourteen directors of the organization.
The consensus of our group discussion was that most of the current problems begin at the lower grade levels when parental problems often lead to long term problems.
Mike McCollum, principal of Effingham High School said it best, “They might drop out when they are 17, but they give up in the third grade.”
Debbie Owens, Assistant Superintendent added, “We’ve seen a dramatic change at home. Today less than 25% of the students live in a two-parent home with their biological parents.”
As I’ve studied the educational system over the years, I’ve become more convinced that we’ve got to reach the very youngest students, making certain that we don’t have ANY that fall through the cracks. And, with falling enrollments and the resulting squeezing of budgets, we’ve got to do more with fewer resources. I’m convinced that using more volunteers and concentrating recourses in critical education-only programs is needed.
One such program started several years ago at two of our local schools, is a mentoring program that places a volunteer with at-risk students one-on-one each week. The program has grown to over 130 mentors-mentees. I participated until my travel schedule didn’t allow me to be certain that I would be with my mentee each week, something that is critical to the success in the program. During my short tenure, I had one student whose parent committed suicide during the school year and another whose mother was in jail for prostitution and drug dealing. Talk about at-risk!
The program costs the school district about $30,000 with over $150,000 donated in time, material and cash from the community. Yet, the school district is looking at cancelling the program in 2009/2010 because of funding problems. It seems like a very short sighted savings but a very long term cost.