CDAC Spotlight
Inspire, Prepare, Connect: Building a Talent Pipeline

Johanna Strong Wharton

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s (SIUE) East St. Louis Center (ESLC) is building a talent pipeline to expand college and career readiness for youth and young adults. The pipeline connects Head Start participants and low-income youth in grades K–12 with opportunities to develop noncognitive skills that lead to success in high school, postsecondary education and the workforce.

East St. Louis is one of the most distressed cities in the U.S., characterized by high poverty and crime rates, low educational attainment and devastating economic conditions. The adult unemployment rate is 10.2 percent. Greater East St. Louis school districts have a student population that is 98.2 percent African-American and 99.5 percent low-income. (Illinois State Board of Education, 2015) Student performance on standardized tests in mathematics and reading are well below the state average, with fewer than one in five students meeting state assessment standards in these areas. (Illinois State Board of Education, 2015)

ESLC’s theory of change is that low-income youth from low-performing school districts will increase high school graduation rates and college enrollment while unemployment rates decrease when students are introduced to programs and services that promote development of noncognitive skills, promote personalized learning, develop teachers’ knowledge and understanding of the significance of noncognitive skills, provide opportunities for increased parent engagement and advocacy, and develop skills in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM). We are teaching educational endurance instead of focusing only on boosting math and language skills or building college and career pathways.

The approach is based on the groundbreaking “growth mindset” research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, who found that academic success is influenced by endurance, perseverance and beliefs—not just intelligence and talent. “Noncognitive skills”—increasingly considered to be at least as important as cognitive skills or IQ in determining academic and employment success—refers to a set of attitudes, behaviors and strategies that are thought to underpin success in school and work, including motivation, grit, resilience and self-control. They are usually contrasted with the “hard skills” of cognitive ability in areas such as math and language arts, which are measured by academic tests.

The target population for the talent pipeline totals almost 8,000 individuals, including students attending East St. Louis, Cahokia and Brooklyn school districts and the East St. Louis Charter High School located on the campus of the ESLC. Partnerships include youth, adults and families enrolled in SIUE programs such as Early Head Start, Head Start, Trio Upward Bound and Project Success.

Youth living in the target communities experience psychosocial deterrents associated with living in generational poverty households and violent communities. They fall further behind academically each year that they are in school. Only six in 10 students graduate high school. The average ACT score is 15. They are not prepared to join the workforce and don’t have access to professional career opportunities in high-demand fields where job opportunities are prevalent. Only 4 percent of high school graduates are fully prepared for college-level course work, and just one in three of those who do attend college actually graduate.

Greater East St. Louis is ripe for a transformative model that bridges the gap between low-income community residents and educational and career opportunities. The scale of the target population is small and manageable enough to have transformative impact at the city level, not just within the school districts.

Program Components (See Table 1 and Box 1)

TABLE 1

Program Model

  Head Start Grades 3-6 Grades 7-8 Grades 9-12
  In School, Weekly Out of School, 2x/Month Summer 5 Weeks In School, 2x/Month Out of School, 2x/Month Summer 5 Weeks In School, 2x/Month Out of School, 2x/Month Summer 5 Weeks
Academic Tools STEAM
Academic Retention
College Tools ACT Preparation
Financial Aid
College Preparation
Success Tools Growth Mindset
Life Skills
Career Tools Career Pathways
On-the-Job Training/​Internships

ELSC’s approach can be described as “Inspire, Prepare and Connect.” It focuses on providing three different types of tools that build academic endurance in youth. The first phase of implementation involves incorporating these tools into existing programming at the ELSC from Head Start to Upward Bound, expanding the number of youth served in after-school and summer programming, and providing professional development opportunities for educators. The second phase involves scaling the model to replicate.

Inspire

Academic Tools. STEAM programming incorporates a project-based learning approach; teachers create real-world problem-solving situations by designing questions and tasks culminating with an end-product, presentation or artifact. Students refine their problem-solving skills, learn to collaborate and apply their learning in creative ways to solve real-world problems, and engage in video game design, digital animation, robotics, aeronautics, forensics, and botany and geology projects. They develop content knowledge in each of the subject areas and—more importantly—gain a new way of thinking and problem-solving that includes creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration, research skills, critical thinking and decision-making, and technology operations. Students also receive academic retention support services. Those most at risk of dropping out are assigned to a counselor who meets with them regularly, assesses risk factors and connects them to resources to address barriers.

Prepare

College Tools. Students have the opportunity to review and relearn math and language arts skills tested on the ACT. They practice ACT questions and learn test-taking skills as well as how to write college entrance essays. Along with their parents, students receive financial aid counseling that involves FAFSA training and information on researching and applying for available local and national scholarships and grants. They develop a timeline for completing college entrance applications, visit the region’s colleges and universities, and understand entrance requirements and degree programs offered. They develop criteria for selecting postsecondary education that fits their needs and assess the barriers that could prevent them from graduating.

Success Tools. Students engage in group sessions focused on social and emotional development, learning resilience, self-control, grit and the growth mindset. These tools prepare students to face challenges with confidence, appreciate opportunities to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone, rebound from failures and disappointments, and remain focused. Research on the impact of growth mindset training on students has demonstrated that it closes the racial achievement gap among African-American students, helping to increase grades, their value of school and enjoyment of academic work.

Success tools include the practical application of confidence, professionalism, respectfulness and discipline. Students learn how to create a résumé, send a business email, network at professional receptions and social events, dress for success and make healthy choices.

Connect

Career Tools. Students and parents learn to apply and connect their studies to the world beyond school through field studies, community service, internships and consultation with outside experts. They create work for authentic audiences and exhibit that work in professional venues. High school students complete substantial internships, developing projects that contribute to the workplace. The ESLC campus has a “workplace” feel, with seminar rooms, small-group learning and project areas, a million-dollar STEAM lab equipped with the latest technology, wireless laptop access and common areas where artwork and prototypes can be produced.

Students and parents explore high-demand career fields that show the most growth in the southern Illinois region, including manufacturing, STEAM and health careers. They learn the types of jobs available and the skills needed to successfully apply for them as well as their aptitude for those jobs. They visit and tour the region’s employers and have the opportunity to practice the skills they’ve learned by applying for and securing internships and on-the-job training opportunities.

As we consider 21st-century job skills, career fields experiencing the most job growth, globalism of the job market and the ever-widening achievement gap among low-income and minority students, we must continue to expand opportunities for all students to succeed. Our work incorporates three scientifically effective approaches to building a pipeline of talented students who are prepared to succeed through high school and postsecondary education, ready to enter high-demand career fields. The consequences of not being successful are dire in East St. Louis. The ESLC has a long-standing commitment to the city; we will continue to be a part of its successful future.

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