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ECC touts unique programs during Lt. Gov. Simon’s visit 


Chicago Tribune
September 28, 2011
By Melissa Jenco

Elgin Community College showed off its college readiness, mock trial and welding programs for Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon Wednesday as she continued her statewide school tour.

Simon is visiting all 48 of the state’s community colleges with plans to provide her findings on the system’s strengths and weaknesses to the governor and General Assembly.

Elgin Community College President David Sam gave Simon a briefing on the school, telling her it serves 33 communities and has seen record enrollment in recent years. The school’s number of degrees and certificates has been trending upward, he reported. He also highlighted the school’s ongoing construction projects including the new Academic Library and Learning Center and the Health Careers Center that both are scheduled to wrap up in December, about six months ahead of schedule.

Julie Schaid, dean of developmental education and college transitions, touted the school’s Alliance for College Readiness, a partnership between the college and area high school teachers to help students prepare for college-level courses. The group has started to include middle school educators as well. One of its initiatives is a three-week Summer Bridge Program that can help students test out of remedial courses. That program has had a 73 percent success rate.

Simon said she was impressed by the college-readiness and bridge programs and would like to see more colleges embrace such a partnership.

“One of the things all the research has shown is the longer it takes to get a degree or certificate, the less likely students are to pursue it,” she said. “They’re falling out of that educational pipeline, so this bridge is a really exciting way to get students earning credit right away, so they can see the benefit — they can see how close they are to doing something that will make them a more marketable employee.”

Ron Kowalczyk, paralegal instructor, told Simon about the mock trial team he advises. It is one of the few community college teams that competes nationally and goes up against the likes of Notre Dame and Northwestern University.

“We at a community college are providing students with as good, if not better, of an education as the four-year schools…at a fraction of the price,” Kowalczyk said.

Jennifer Rieger, past captain the team, said it was intimidating to compete against schools like Yale at first, but it turned out to be a valuable experience.

“I’m just really thankful to come from ECC and that ECC gave me that type of opportunity to have that that experience,” she said.

Rieger is now attending North Central College in Naperville on a scholarship and hopes to go on to law school.

Officials also discussed the 1,000 Worker Skills Initiative, a program run through a partnership between ECC and numerous community groups that tests a person’s skills in areas like math and reading and helps them achieve a National Career Readiness Certificate, which is recognized by at least 85 area employers.

In addition, Simon heard from students in the school’s welding program. Through the program, four of the 11 students already have found jobs.

Simon took a tour of the college’s new welding facility during her visit and students gave her a large paperweight they created with her name on it.

“Now you will never forget us,” said Dave Reich, associate professor of welding.

Elgin Community College was the 37th stop on Simon’s tour of the state’s 48 community colleges. Among the common themes she has seen is financial struggles both of the institutions and their students. She also visited Harper College in Palatine on Wednesday.

“As financial aid and grant opportunities shrink and tuition goes up, cost to students is something that keeps people from finishing a degree they were going to get,” she said.

She acknowledged the state has been late in making payments to schools and said she would like to be a better advocate for the value of community colleges.

Simon also hopes the state can improve the way students transition from high school to a community college to a four-year school.

“If we can make those transitions more smooth, we’ll be saving a great deal of money,” she said.