Shaping state education policy: Advance Illinois connects with local leaders in Sterling

STERLING – A nonpartisan advocacy organization for state education policy was in town Thursday to get input from about 30 community leaders.

The participants, most representing education and business interests, gathered at the Whiteside Area Career Center to share ideas on workforce development.

In part to mark its 10th anniversary, Advance Illinois is conducting “listening tours” to better understand what residents want from their public education system. The stop in Sterling was the 11th of 15 trips on the tour.

“We are out talking to education and business partners so we can assess education needs,” said Bob Dolgan, communications director at the Chicago-based organization. “These ideas will help us develop our strategy for the next 10 to 12 years.”

Advance Illinois spends most of its time and energy on education issues that have long-term implications for residents. The organization spent 5 years on an initiative that helped shape the new funding formula for state schools.

Work will continue to track where the new money goes and how successful the new model is in bringing the promised equity to funding.

“We’ve compiled information on where the first $350 million went, and that is the kind of information that can be found on our website,” Executive Director Ginger Ostro said.

Advance Illinois also has its eye on addressing the state’s worsening teacher shortage and post-secondary education access and attainment.

The local education and business leaders, along with facilitators, discussed changes in education over the past decade then formed smaller groups to do some brainstorming.

Technology changes quickly came to mind, but many other changes impacting the workforce were related to perceptions.

“There was a shift to the notion that everyone had to go to college,” said Bob Sondgeroth, regional schools superintendent for Lee, Whiteside and Ogle counties. “Now there is a shortage of skilled manufacturing workers, and we need to change that mindset.”

Many agreed that a new reality is setting in that liberal arts students are losing their way on career paths that don’t provide the skills needed in today’s workforce. In the Sauk Valley, where manufacturing is still such an important part of the work base, there has been a call to change the perception of that sector – and not just with students.

“People don’t understand the revitalization of manufacturing,” said Jerry Binder, director of development at Whiteside Area Career Center. “We have jobs for every kid, but many parents have a misconception of factory jobs.”

Each small group spent 30 minutes answering the question: What does the education system need to get right for families in the region to be successful? Each group condensed its discussion into three primary goals for building a stronger workforce, built for the future.

The information gleaned from the tours will be consolidated for the Advance Illinois agenda and local leaders will be updated on the results sometime this fall.

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