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Harvard study encourages Aurora business, schools to work together

Bob Schwartz with Harvard Graduate School Educatipresents research supporting economic development through increasing employment success career readiness skills for arestudents

Bob Schwartz with the Harvard Graduate School of Education presents research supporting economic development through increasing employment success and career readiness skills for area students with the launch of the Aurora Regional Pathways to Prosperity Project at Cabot Microelectronics in Aurora on Friday, January 25, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 28, 2013 6:35AM

Large-scale summer jobs programs for Aurora’s teens.

A technology center to build the capacity for young people to learn high-tech career skills.

Schools that integrate practical skills for in-demand IT fields into their coursework.

These are some of the ideas on the table that researchers from Harvard University and the Pathways to Prosperity initiative think could help get Aurora students on track for great careers.

On Friday morning, Aurora’s government, business and education leaders assembled at Cabot Microelectronics on the far East Side to learn and contribute to Pathways to Prosperity, an initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the non-profit Jobs for the Future program.

The premise is simple: students too often graduate from high school without great job prospects and employers struggle to find skilled employees.

“Unemployment sits around 7.8 percent. In Illinois, it’s even higher,” said Julie Ewart of the U.S. Department of Education. “But every month, about 3 million jobs go unfulfilled, and we know that at least some of those jobs go unfulfilled because of a skills gap.”

Pathways to Prosperity aims to bridge that skills gap, particularly by getting students who may not be bound for four-year universities into certificate and associate degree programs, and to build interest in high-demand fields like health care, IT and advanced manufacturing.

But, explained Harvard Professor Bob Schwartz, the solution is not that simple.

“The work takes places at the regional workforce level,” and getting young Aurorans ready for long-lasting, high-paying careers — the kinds of labor development that could uplift the entire community — requires buy-in from the entire community, Schwartz said.

Employers must be willing to work in and with schools to offer internships and other kinds of hands-on job training and exploration. Some sort of organization must be formed to help educators and the business community coordinate their efforts.

And schools must expand their course offerings and their counseling staffs to help steer students toward career paths for which they are well suited, and to combat the stigma associated with career and technical education.

“Kids and their parents need much, much better information about what their options are and how they can prepare for those careers,” Schwartz said.

And federal, state and local government needs to commit to addressing issues like funding and regulation to make it happen.

Positioned to improve

Already, when it comes to education initiatives, Aurora has SPARK, an early learning initiative of the United Way working to prepare children ages birth to 5 for kindergarten. Pathways to Prosperity would take up the other end, bringing students from high school to the workforce.

In between, the future STEM Academy at Aurora University will introduce students and teachers to science and tech fields.

And from a STEM preschool at SciTech to the Illinois Math and Science Academy, the city has devoted resources to educating students in the STEM disciplines.

“We’re looking at Aurora to become a model,” said Miguel Del Valle, chairman of the Illinois P-20 Council, which promotes collaboration among state agencies, schools, community groups, employers and families. “Because of your demographics, you have an opportunity to demonstrate how things can be done across the country.”

But what is needed now, Friday’s participants said, is a leader or an organization to take the reins.

Plenty of ideas circulated during break-out sessions Friday morning — business leaders proposing innovative math curricula with real-world engineering problems, or a high school class that teaches IT skills by rebuilding and recycling outdated computers — but for now, they’re just ideas.

“We need some kind of organizational structure,” said Dunham Fund Executive Director Robert Vaughan. “All of us have been to too many meetings like this and then nothing happens.”

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