MAY 15, 2013 -- Legislators approved a bill today that will attract college-minded people to Rockford and increase post-secondary education opportunities for Rockford Public School students. The Illinois Senate approved the Lincoln Promise Zone proposal to benefit students and communities in Rockford, East St. Louis and Aurora.
The legislation allows the respective city councils to create a promise zone pilot, an oversight board with volunteer board members, and a review committee. The board will solicit private funding to pay for an associate degree from a local community college. In Rockford, the bill would pair students with Rock Valley College. A local governing board would set criteria for students to qualify for the program. Initially, students would be eligible for Promise Zone scholarships if they live within district boundaries, graduate from Rockford Public Schools, maintain performance standards while enrolled at Rock Valley College and have exhausted other governmental funding opportunities.
The program could expand to cover four-year colleges as well, said Assistant Superintendent Matt Vosberg. This program, once signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, would benefit this year’s sophomores – the graduating class of 2015 – as tuition would be covered for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years. “This is a great opportunity for our students and community,” Vosberg said. “There is still more work to be done, but this is a tremendous first step.”
Several local legislators have co-sponsored the bill, including State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-34th District, who described the bill as a “game changer” for Rockford. “It will give students an opportunity and motivation to further their education while offering parents an incentive to stay in Rockford and keep their kids in public schools,” he said. “We often talk about the need to attract and retain business – it starts by making sure we have a skilled labor force, and this legislation will help accomplish that goal.”
Kalamazoo, Mich., has a similar promise program that pays for public school graduates’ college tuition. It has drawn families and businesses to the city. “All we have to do is look at them,” said State Rep. John Cabello, R-68th District, who co-sponsored the House Bill and described it as a potential economic boon for the community. The House approved the bill in February.
Rockford Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Einar Forsman also applauded the economic revitalization plan. It gives business leaders a unique vehicle to support community scholarships for higher education while also drawing students and families into the public schools.
State Rep. Chuck Jefferson, D-67th District, another bill co-sponsor, said this public-private partnership initiative will allow more Rockford students a chance to reach their potential.
Rock Valley College President Jack Becherer said this legislation will give more students the opportunity to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. “The Promise Zone will guide students to better choices after high school graduation; a college degree is critical in our workforce,” Becherer said. “Promise Zones will dramatically increase the number of students who will focus on improving their skills and career options.”
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Rockford Public Schools offer a rich and varied curriculum to its 28,000 students. It is one of the largest school districts in Illinois and the second-largest employer in the Rockford region. The district focuses on Readiness Rocks, five initiatives aimed at improving student achievement, making best use of resources and making RPS 205 a desirable and successful school district. Those initiatives are: College and Career Readiness, Seven Periods to Success, 21st Century Learning Environments, Preschool for All and College for All.