Fight Illinois brain drain by preparing students for college, careers: report

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Pedestrians walk through the University of Illinois at Chicago campus in Chicago on September 10, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

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There’s another sort of “brain drain” in Illinois: the loss of graduating high school students not because they migrated to other states but because they are not ready for college, in-state or out, or for a promising career.

That’s according to the authors of a recent report about how Illinois prepares students for life after graduation. Issued Tuesday by the education advocacy group Stand for Children, the report suggests inadequate opportunities in high school can sap Illinois of young talent.

One area of concern for the group: Illinois’ school counselors.

According to federal data, Illinois expects each student counselor to serve more students than most other states. Illinois fielded one counselor for every 678 students, the sixth-worst ratio in the country, in the 2015-2016 school year, the last for which the federal government published nationwide data.

Nationwide, the ratio was 466 students per counselor; the American Student Counselor Association recommends a staffing level of 250 students per counselor.

In the course of the normal duties, many school counselors have other responsibilities, like providing emotional support for students, that compete for attention with helping students plan for life after high school.

The problem is only made worse by the state’s teacher shortage: in understaffed schools, counselors without classroom responsibilities often are pulled away to substitute teach or monitor students in the cafeteria, the report found. In 21 percent of Illinois high schools, serving 850,000 students, there was no counselor at all for the 2013-2014 school year, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reported. Some studies suggest a greater presence of student counselors can significantly improve student outcomes.


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Without counselors steering students toward programs to prepare them for life after high school, those programs will falter, according to Jessica Handy, Stand for Children’s Illinois government affairs director.

This made the state’s student to counselor ratio “the most alarming” statistic they found while assembling the report.

“[The student counselor ratio] is really such a big deal,” Handy said. “As we do all of this policy work at the state level, as we create all these tools, it really depends on students having some guidance there to steer them in the right direction.”

One solution offered by the report: dedicated “Career and College Coordinators” whose sole responsibility would be preparing students for post-high school success.

The report also looked at career and technical education in high schools – and found that the state’s offerings were not in line with the demands of its economy.

The health sciences, manufacturing, and energy account for half the jobs in Illinois. But only 12 percent of students taking career and technical education courses are studying these fields, Stand for Children found. Preparation for careers in agriculture, the only field to have a separate line item in the state budget, takes up a disproportionate share of that enrollment.

The solution, Handy said, is for the state to increase its investment in other fields, with a view to the jobs that will need to be filled in their area in the future.

“Agriculture is a place where the state has done really good work,” Handy said. “Even though its not your grandpa’s farm anymore, those are skills that can be taken over to other areas. I think it needs to be not so much fewer kids in agriculture but more kids total finding a pathway.”

Whatever field they study, students must take enough courses to turn their time in the classroom into marketable skills. Illinois trails its neighbors in students “concentrating” in a single field, the report found.

“You can take a one-off [career and technical education] course and its not going to net you much. Whereas if you take the full pathway and get the credential, that matters a lot,” Handy said.

The report also called for more dual enrollment and other college credit courses, an “early-warning system” for high school freshmen not on track to graduate, and more state spending on education.

Stand for Children also want more money for the Monetary Assessment Program, the state’s need-based college scholarship.

Some recommendations, Handy said, need no additional funding. In other areas, “very small appropriation could have a huge return on investment,” Handy said.

Ultimately, Handy believes a better preparation for careers beyond high school could knit students into their local communities and economies — and keep them there.

“I think its important we expand how we talk about the brain drain to include those high school years. Because if we are really doing a good job in our high schools of giving kids internships, giving kids dual credit opportunities, giving kids the opportunities to really build a network that puts them on a pathway, then they’re more likely to stay in the state,” Handy said.

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