It has been posited that in order for a community to thrive, 60 percent of its population must have completed some form of secondary education—a credential beyond a high school diploma or GED. The Greater Peoria area currently stands at 40 percent, so we obviously have some work to do.
Overcoming Individual Barriers
For the past four years, I have been semi-retired and working as an instructor at our local community college focusing on grant programs for disadvantaged individuals. The first program I taught at Illinois Central College (ICC) was the “Success After the GED College Bridge Program,” based on statistics showing that only a small percentage of all GED graduates go on to obtain a college degree. The classes included a diversity of individuals in terms of age (17 to 65), race, gender and status. One of the most successful classes was comprised entirely of work release students, who embraced the opportunity to change the trajectory of their future. In the first year, we were able to boost those numbers significantly!
In my classes, I saw firsthand the struggle of many individuals to overcome barriers in their lives. Perhaps the greatest of these barriers involves the lack of a “support system.” Many factors come together to create a negative environment for these individuals—including the lack of two-parent families where poverty rates are lowest. According to the 2020 Heart of Illinois United Way Community Assessment, Peoria-area families with a single female head of household are over 10 times more likely to experience poverty. Quite obviously the lack of a father or male role model has contributed to the erosion of the family dynamic. With a lack of parental guidance, children may be left to depend on their circle of friends for support. But this is rarely enough—and is likely contributing to issues related to public safety, the lack of education credentials and reduced workforce readiness.
Solutions to these complex problems are not easily found. However, there are many individuals and organizations in Peoria stepping up to help address the void:
- Illinois Central College is involved in many government grants designed to help disadvantaged individuals, as mentioned above. ICC is also working in collaboration with the CEO Council, Greater Peoria EDC and other community organizations to address the region’s workforce gap.
- ELITE Youth Outreach, founded by Carl Cannon, works with youth to address potential impediments to their future success. Mr. Cannon’s program helps create a wonderful support system to fill the void in many of their lives.
- Moonlight Coalition for Adult Learning is a terrific organization that supports individuals in achieving their GEDs and obtaining better jobs.
- Prairie State Legal Services offers free legal services for low-income persons and helps seal or expunge criminal records that may impede an individual’s ability to gain employment—strengthening the community while reducing the crime rate at the same time.
Building a Support System
In our programs at ICC, we touch on a variety of areas that contribute to a student’s ability to transition into college and a bright future. First and foremost is the development of a healthy support system comprised of fellow classmates as well as ICC’s student support services. Second, we encourage discipline and focus for individuals who may have lacked it in the past, allowing them to see new possibilities for their future. For example, many students got their GED because they struggled to complete high school. How then could they imagine the “leap” to college? It requires a new mindset.
A third aspect involves determining students’ academic level and which classes would be most relevant to their field of study. We want their efforts in obtaining a degree to conclude with a viable career path for which they are well-suited. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top job opportunities in central Illinois are currently in the fields of nursing, welding and automotive technology—and ICC has excellent programs in each.
Fourth involves the contributing factors that determine a student’s success, including the development of effective study habits and soft skills, the balance of work-life commitments, and professional standards regarding attendance, timeliness, dress and communication. Finally, we touch on aspects of student life outside the classroom which may impact their future success: healthy lifestyles, such as eating habits and moderate exercise; financial matters, including income investment and major purchases like cars and homes; as well as how to control stress, building self-esteem, and family and friend dynamics.
Education is not only a crucial component to an individual’s future success; it is also critical to the health and growth of the community we call home. With the work being done to boost educational attainment, we hope for an increase in well-paying, family-sustaining jobs—as well as a commensurate boost to the regional economy. PM