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A $79 Million 'Promise' Could Transform Educational Opportunity On Peoria's South Side

Tim Shelley
Peoria's 61605 ZIP code has a high rate of vacant buildings like these houses on Western Avenue.

Illinois Central College is leading a coalition of dozens of community groups in applying for a federal Promise Neighborhoods grant. If approved, nearly $80 million would be available to transform education on Peoria's South Side through the new "Peoria Cradle to Career" initiative.

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos is requesting a $500,000 appropriation in the next federal budget to get the program started.

Tim Shelley talks with Dr. Rita Ali, Peoria's mayor and, until June 30, ICC's vice president of workforce and diversity, about what this could mean for the 61605 ZIP code.

TIM SHELLEY: I hadn't heard anything quite like that (Cradle to Career program) before. So tell me a little bit about what this is. And how this all came about?

RITA ALI: Sure. It's very exciting. Several months ago, Illinois Central College partnered with Peoria Public Schools and the city of Peoria, and led a process to include 32 signed organizations and over 60 businesses, to launch an initiative to transform Peoria 61605 ZIP code area.

That ZIP code area is one of the most distressed ZIP codes in our nation, not just in our state, but in our nation. The Economic Innovation Group identifies as ZIP codes of areas that have been left behind that are distressed on a scale of zero through 100. The higher the number, the worse the area is based upon distress factors. And 61605 has a distress factor of 99.6 out of 100. So you know, it doesn't get much worse than that.

There's, you know, high poverty, over 44% of the adults in the area are not employed, over 50% of the homes in the area are not maintained. You can talk about income, you know, being very low and high crime that takes place there. So all those factors together, give it a very concerning score.

And we came together and with an opportunity called the Promise Neighborhoods. It's a grant opportunity that's put out by the U.S. Department of Education every so many years. And so we decided we're going to apply for a Promise Neighborhood grant, a $30 million grant. And through collaboration, the city and Peoria Public Schools as well as numerous community base and business organizations, social service and medical organizations, came together to support the initiative. And so we submitted a grant. And it required 100% match, in kind and financial match. And we actually exceeded that. The 100% (match) means a $30 million match. We came up with a $49 million match for Peoria.

So we think that we're competitive, and we hope that you know, we get funded, but we won't find out until later this year. In the meantime, Congresswoman Bustos is dedicating some community directed funding to help jumpstart the Peoria Cradle to Career Initiative. And that's our Promise Neighborhood title.

TIM SHELLEY: $49 million, that's a lot of money. And that's the city, that's the hospitals. That's a lot of major employers. ICC. Tell me, all these organizations, obviously, are coming together for this, what's their vested interests, and what's their goal and trying to help bring this grant to Peoria?

RITA ALI: Right, so much of it addresses their mission in addressing poverty or addressing social economic issues addressing health care within the community. And they all understand that what happens in one part of our community impacts another part of our community. The business community through the Chamber of Commerce and the CEO Council has stepped up.

Most of the funding is in-kind commitments, and so it's about leveraging resources throughout our community. There are some actual cash donations as well. But again, much of it is in-kind, which is fine. It means people's time, means space, commitments, and other resources that have been contributed.

And, you know, we're looking, whether we get funded or not, we're looking to implement this initiative to transform this area of our city. So I'm very excited. It's solution oriented. It's about providing family resource navigation services. That's one of the solutions even in Congresswoman Bustos' half a million dollar funding. We're looking at doing an assessment of all the families within 61605 to identify their needs, their workforce needs, their healthcare needs, their social, economic and education needs, because it's all about helping, beginning with children, helping them to be successful from the time that they're born, until the time that they actually enter into employment, that pays a family sustaining wage.

So we want to wrap supports around them, we want to connect them with opportunities. But before doing that, we really have to get an assessment of the baseline, where were we starting, how many families do not have WiFi in their home or equipment that can access WiFi, or both, because there is a digital divide. We understand that. But we know that even accessing your medical records, you have to have access to internet. Even to apply for jobs these days, you do it online, this is the way you apply for work.

So there's a disconnect there. And we want to you want we want to build a portal that people can tap into, to know that these opportunities are out there and available. And it really is making connections within our community to help to lift the individuals that live there.

TIM SHELLEY: And Cradle to Career. We hear so often about how important it is to reach kids when they are still young. So talk a little bit about maybe why or how this will try to reach out to the youth specifically and get them on the right path, maybe, as they move forward through their development.

RITA ALI: Absolutely. Early childhood education is extremely important, because we have children that are entering kindergarten without the right level of... they didn't have the right level of support, and they're not ready. They're entering kindergarten not ready to learn. And so early childhood education starts at birth.

And you know, goals, until the time that they enter either some early childhood education program or kindergarten, we have to get more students within that area enrolled in a Head Start, or in some type of pre-K type of program through Valeska Hinton School, or some of the other opportunities through childcare programs within the city. They don't have to actually be in 61605. But we have to get them enrolled early so that by the time they enter kindergarten, they're ready to learn, they're more prepared to learn and we know if they have that foundation, they're going to be more successful.

So then, from there, you know what types of other additional education coaching is needed. We have identified having education success coaches to go into the homes within 61605 and help to set up the actual learning environment within that home. And to help the parents if needed to connect with the teachers and the counselors at their school.

There may be some need for social emotional support. Many families within that area of town experienced trauma within their environment. They have, you know, they may walk past or drive past memorials because someone was killed within their block, or some type of death or incident happened or shooting happened within their area. That's a form of trauma that oftentimes requires some additional support.

So it's all about assessing with this funding, assessing the need initially that's the jumpstart, assessing the need based upon technology.

We're also looking at trying to get more WiFi even on the lampposts within the area. Some progressive cities are doing that there. They have a lamppost with an LED light. And at the tip of that, you'll see WiFi - a little thing that sticks out this actually provided WiFi for that entire block. So we're looking at innovative ways to provide broadband Internet services to people that live in that area, and to really connect them in a way that they have never been connected before.

TIM SHELLEY: And when we talk about workers going into families' houses to make sure the environment's conducive for learning, we're talking about something that's highly individualized. So this is going to be reaching families at that level, not at a 50,000 foot level.

RITA ALI: Exactly right, Tim. It's very personal. It's really getting close up and personal with the individuals that we're hoping to help to change their lives and provide more opportunities so that they can be successful. The more successful they are, the more successful we are as a city. By getting more education to this community, more job opportunities to this community, it will help to reduce crime.

We have also have had a focus on housing, you know, having some improvement to the housing in that area, we want to raise the values of housing there and throughout the city. You know, it's about addressing our weakest link, and it's only going to help us to be stronger as a whole.

TIM SHELLEY: And what role specifically would Peoria Public Schools play in this? I'm sure they would play a very large role.

RITA ALI: They would be a key partner in this because it's primarily Peoria Public Schools families. It's also the families of headstart families. And with the grant that we apply for, you can't just address a piece of the population, you have to address the whole population. So even those families that are not connected with your public schools, we will be looking at providing support to them, as well. So they want they want us to address the problems at a population level, not just to slice off a piece of the pie.

And so that's how you really affect change in an area as large as the ZIP code. So some of the, you know, solutions focus on early childhood education, again, academic success coaching, Summer Bridge programming, because we know through research that, especially low income youth or families, there's academic loss during the summer and reading and math, because they're not in school quite often unless they're in a year-round program.

Also youth character development, and mentoring, especially for those teenagers. We know that youth unemployment is very high among African American youth. That's the area of town where there's a lot of minority, both African American and Hispanic, Latino youth. So we want to address those issues of mentoring and providing support to them. That digital literacy training and development. So we want to train people how to use this new, you know, WiFi and computer equipment that may be recently introduced in their home.

Financial literacy education. We want them to become homeowners, or teach them how to balance, spend their money in an effective way, pay their bills, effectively, just that financial education. That's a part of this. This strategy.

TIM SHELLEY: So I guess the big question then would be, when do we find out if we got this grant? And I know the assessment would happen, you know, with Congresswoman Bustos requesting this money, but how do we find out when the next step is and when we can move forward?

RITA ALI: I believe some things that will take place between now and November. We won't likely find out until November if we get the third big $30 million grant. But I believe that there are some things that are being put in place with some potential other funding that can help to take us to the next phase. So the Bustos funding, which is half a million dollars, can help us to jumpstart with this assessment.

The assessment will really help us to know where we are, what the specific needs are and who has those specific needs. Then the next phase is some additional funding that we can begin to implement perhaps the portal, the development of what we call a "Promise Portal" that people will be able to tap into, to be able to access resources, and then begin to actually provide for those.

Those navigation services will need money for staffing in order to actually conduct those navigation services with the wraparound support, and having someone do case management for the people that live in the area that need it. Again, everybody doesn't need the same level of service. And that's what equity is all about, right? Providing the support to those who need it.

TIM SHELLEY: Anything else you'd like to add?

RITA ALI: The word is starting to get out. The partners were aware, of course. There's 32 signed partners. There's the business community that has been involved, but the general public, I would say, is not really aware that there's this big initiative called Peoria Cradle to Career Initiative that is beginning to take hold, in terms of transforming Peoria's 61605.

We help to address those issues of food insecurity. You know, there's no grocery store in that area that provides fresh food and vegetables. And so you know, the opportunities for workforce development training. Illinois Central College is doing a lot with what we call workforce equity initiatives that targets certain members of our certain groups within our community that are less advantaged, and providing free tuition to provide training for those jobs that pay very well. A family sustaining wage and short term training that can get them trained and skilled and employed.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.