Program offers pathway to GED, college degrees

By Elise Zwicky for Chronicle Media
Brent Baker (Photo courtesy Peoria Pathways to Prosperity)

Brent Baker (Photo courtesy Peoria Pathways to Prosperity)

Brent Baker discovered a theme of regret among Taft and Harrison Homes residents while gathering data last year about community needs for the Peoria Housing Authority as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

“One of the most frustrating aspects was working with individuals in their late 20s or early 30s who had so much regret about not finishing school and making the wrong decisions,” said Baker.

After completing the survey, Baker developed a boot camp of sorts to help interested residents get their GEDs and then coordinated with Illinois Central College to place them in the college’s Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program.

“When all was said and done, there were 25 women who went through the program. Of those, eight are now working as CNA’s and three more are on target to finish up ICC’s program in December,” he said.

Now, as the recently hired coordinator for the Peoria Pathways to Prosperity program, Baker is turning his attention ensure District 150 students have the right information and opportunities to graduate high school and go on to earn postsecondary degrees or certified work credentials.

“This job kind of dove-tailed really nicely with the work I had been doing with AmericaCorps and the Peoria Housing Authority,” said Baker, a Brimfield native who graduated from Bradley University in 2013 with a degree in psychology.

“This position is a way to try to break that cycle before an adult gets to that point where they’re questioning all these decisions they’ve made,” he added.

The Peoria Pathways to Prosperity is a collaboration of nine local agencies and is part of a multi-state project designed to increase high school graduation rates and steer those graduates at an early age toward a goal of obtaining post-secondary education—either college or technical training—to find a sustainable career that matches their interests and skills.

The project also seeks to engage employers in the process through internships, job shadowing and apprentice opportunities.

Peoria Pathways partners include the city of Peoria, the CEO council, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, Peoria School District 150, ICC, the Peoria Federation of Teachers local 780, the Peoria County Regional Office of Education, the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

Nationally, Pathways to Prosperity grew out of a 2011 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that looked at how to prepare young Americans for the 21st century. The study maintained that students are too often pushed to attend four-year colleges instead of seeking technical-skilled certifications at community colleges or through vocational training.

Illinois was among the first eight states to join the Pathways to Prosperity network, which has a goal of increasing the number of adults with college or other certifications to 60 percent by 2025. Peoria joined last year and is one of five communities in Illinois participating, all of which were honored recently at the College Changes Everything conference in Tinley Park.

Brent Baker was hired in August to coordinate the program out of a pool of about 40 applicants, said Paula Davis, retired superintendent of Pekin Community High School District 303 and chair of the Peoria Pathways committee.

The coordinator’s salary is being funded through a $65,000 grant from the American Federation of Teachers.

The Peoria Pathways group also received a $7,000 Illinois 60×25 grant that’s being used to purchase software, Davis said.

“All the schools in the region use career orientation software called Career Cruising that allows students to do interest inventories to find out about jobs out there,” Davis explained. “The component we’ve purchased that’s an add-on to that is called Inspire and actually takes it to the next level, so when kids have done that assessment it then links them to potential internships, job shadowing and job opportunities that are available.”

Davis said Baker will be working with area employers to find out what student-based work opportunities are currently available and to hopefully add to that list. The Inspire software will help ensure that District 150 students are aware of those opportunities, she added.

Staff from the Harvard Pathways to Prosperity project analyzed Peoria’s needs and assets in a process called asset-mapping, which identified health occupations, manufacturing and IT as the top three areas where employees are needed locally.

One positive step toward training students in health careers is the creation of a CNA and phlebotomy program in District 150 last year that was done in concert with the Health Occupations department at ICC, Davis said.

“District 150 has met with ICC to make sure programs they have in place at the high schools have the content base necessary to move those kids effectively into a certificate-based program at ICC,” she said. “We’re also looking at building more dual-credit courses.”

One of Baker’s goals is to provide 30 new work-based learning opportunities for District 150 students through area employers by the end of this school year.

“There are plenty of kids in District 150 who have initiative. They just don’t have the opportunities,” he said. “There’s talent here, and employers can help cultivate that, which will deliver us a better overall community.”

Both Davis and Baker believe the Peoria Pathways project will yield tangible results in two to five years.

“I am optimistic that the program will be able to create a change,” Davis said. “I think when kids are given opportunities, positive things can happen.”

Baker added, “When we create these opportunities for kids and we provide more experiential learning where they get really engaged, they’ll fall in love with not only a job but a career and a livelihood that allows them to take care of their family. I think this is really the beginning of how we get at a lot of these social issues that are kind of miring in Peoria right now. It will yield a more economically viable community, an overall healthier community and a more livable community for everyone.”

Baker encourages any employers interested in being part of the Peoria Pathways to Prosperity project to email him at or call (309) 495-5973.



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