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Illinois Colleges Open Joint Workforce Training Center

By Sonya Stinson

Innovative partnership demonstrates how colleges can work together across municipal boundaries to meet community needs.

When several jurisdictions overlap in a small community, it’s sometimes easy for the needs of community members to get overlooked.

That was the case recently in Illinois’ Hanover Township. Because of the community’s high unemployment rate and growing Latino population, community members faced several issues, including limited access to job training and higher education.

That all began to change earlier this year when two local community colleges — Elgin Community College (ECC) and Harper College — teamed up to open the Education and Work Center in Hanover Park.

The idea for the center, which provides English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction as well as access to resume writing and other job-hunting skills, was floated five years ago, during a summit convened by the township’s mayor, Rodney Craig.

Education, business and political leaders, along with representatives from the local Workforce Investment Board, gathered to discuss a variety of issues facing the community.

“What we identified pretty quickly was that this township sits in a geographical area that is served by three community colleges, but it’s in a very small portion of each one of those districts,” says Ken Ender, president of Harper College. “As a result, nobody had really paid much attention to it over the years.”

Summit participants continued meeting over the next few years to discuss the possibility of a joint education center.

“None of us could afford separately to establish a center and pay for that infrastructure,” says Peggy Heinrich, dean of adult education at ECC. “But if we combined our resources, our thinking was that we might be able to make that possible.”

None of us could afford separately to establish a center and pay for that infrastructure.

The group used local Tax Increment Financing District funds to renovate a vacant 10,000-square-foot former swimming-pool store in the Hanover Square Shopping Center. The nonprofit Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership provided staffing and computers for the creation of an onsite WorkNet Center that offers help with interviewing, resume writing and other job-related skills. Harper and ECC faculty teach ESL basic adult education and GED high school equivalency exam prep, and instruction is available in both English and Spanish.

Each college agreed to contribute $750,000 to cover operational costs. State Rep. Fred Crespo helped secure a $200,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to purchase startup materials for the center.

Registration kicked off the first week of September. Evening classes started the second week of September, and daytime classes will begin in October. ESL classes filled up within days, requiring organizers to acquire space in a nearby community hall to accommodate overflow. Organizers are already considering borrowing additional space from a local church, Heinrich says.

That kind of demand is just what the program’s supporters had hoped for.

“We hope to grow out of the space in a hurry,” Ender says. “I think what we’re providing is only a tip of the iceberg, and I can easily see us developing adult-oriented cohort programming for individuals that we identify are ready to bridge from the GED to a certificate, a license or a degree.”

Working together

The multiyear training center project, which required the collaboration of several state and municipal agencies, presented a host of bureaucratic and logistical challenges, including construction setbacks and legal hurdles.

“The state policies as to who can offer what kind of instruction, and in what districts, were really tied to district boundaries,” Ender explains. “So the idea that we were going to overlap each other’s boundaries to provide services sort of stumped the state.”

Getting those approvals required the negotiation of special dispensations from area community colleges and adult education boards.

Interested in partnering with a local college to better meet the needs of your community? Ender and Heinrich offer these suggestions for a successful relationship:

  1. Get buy-in. Be sure all partners in the effort are fully committed, and that they state clearly the financial investment they intend to make. “You really have to have that up front,” says Ender, “because if you’ve got a plan but no financial support…it’s really tough.”
  2. Get the leadership involved. Community colleges involvement must come from the top down. According to Heinrich, the success of the ECC-Harper collaboration was the result of “a common goal” — a lot of passion and a shared vision — and not letting the logistics and the bureaucracy get in the way.”

Want more recommendations for how colleges can work together with state and local agencies to foster exciting community partnerships? Download AACC’s Implementation Guide: Empowering Community Colleges to Build the Nation’s Future.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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