Workforce development for students was in the spotlight at Wednesday night’s virtual meeting of Evanston’s City-School Liaison Committee.
Representatives from the Mayor’s Employer Advisory Council (MEAC) updated City Council members, District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton and District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon on continued efforts to expand programs for young people.
Former Mayor Steve Hagerty created the advisory council in 2018 with the goal of developing “sustainable career pathways for Evanston high school students seeking careers that do not require a four-year college degree,” according to the MEAC website.
During the Jan. 26 meeting, Neil Gambow, chair of the all-volunteer council, highlighted efforts to partner with local employers and the Evanston Youth and Young Adult Division to promote increased opportunities for career planning and career experiences among students at Evanston Township High School.
Currently, MEAC helps organize and fund the iKit Summer Internship Program, which pairs a group of ETHS graduates with local companies for a 10-week paid summer job. For the first two years of that program, the city connected 15 young Evanston residents with employment opportunities, but iKit is expanding to 30 interns this summer thanks to additional funding and company partnerships.
Tana Francellno, who serves as the MEAC Career Partnership Manager at ETHS, added that the school has conducted a number of recent career panels and matched counselors with special education students for career planning and brainstorming sessions. ETHS has already established workforce development partnerships with NorthShore University HealthSystem, the ETHS Foundation and the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, and Francellno said MEAC is working on finalizing new connections with local hair salon iKandi and Northlight Theatre as well.
The group has also expanded its work into District 65 middle schools, with MEAC representative Bob Easter highlighting how the city wants to provide middle school students with exposure to career experiences where they can learn more about different jobs and companies that have a strong presence in Evanston. Through its efforts with younger residents, MEAC hopes to help all middle school students transition into ETHS having spent some time thinking about their career interests, Easter said.
“We’re still scratching the surface on work-based learning for students, and it is so important not only for students not going to college right away, but it’s just as important for the ones that are going to college,” Gambow said. “They can at least make some better, more informed decisions about where they want to be.”
In the coming year, Gambow said he plans to roll out a new manufacturing jobs pipeline and finish training the city’s newly hired workforce development coordinator.
These latest plans to expand career education and employment opportunities for high school students have also come on the heels of an October visit to ETHS by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who represents the state of Illinois. In a roundtable discussion at the high school, Duckworth met with school administrators and local employers to advocate for better career-readiness training at the high school level.
“Traditional pathways are great, but our nation needs this, and we’re making significant investments,” Duckworth said during her visit to ETHS. “It’s going to take a commitment from all of us over a period of years, not just this one meeting we’re having today. We’re going to have to do this over and over again, and we’re going to have to sell the parents on it.”
Public comments, a surprise TIF agenda item
During the public comment portion of the meeting, several parents, students and community members promoted various causes and asked questions of School Board members, City Council representatives and district administrators. Among other things, a number of people advocated for ETHS to hire a full-time sustainability coordinator to help District 202 become greener through efforts like more efficient composting and reducing the school building’s energy consumption.
ETHS junior Emmet Ebels-Duggan said at the meeting that having a sustainability coordinator could essentially pay for itself because research shows that such positions help eliminate a potentially large amount of energy costs.
“As the largest high school building in the country, ETHS has a responsibility to hire a permanent coordinator to best steward our space and resources in service of environmental justice,” Ebels-Duggan said. “The coordinator should be tasked with crafting and implementing a sustainability plan for the district’s grounds. This is essential, as ETHS’ massive building and facilities naturally account for a large proportion of the city’s energy usage.”
Several ETHS parents also spoke about concerns regarding the school’s response to sexual harassment complaints against former color guard coach Lorenzo Medrano, who was charged with child seduction after allegations at a high school in Indiana where he also worked. In December, the RoundTable reported that despite a number of student complaints against Medrano at ETHS, the school cleared him of wrongdoing and allowed him to continue coaching last spring.
Other community members posed questions to the committee about the unexplained and prolonged absence of the two top Human Resources officials at ETHS, Toya Campbell and Yolanda Hardy. The two employees have been on paid leave since October, although the school administration has not offered any details about the reason for the leave, previously telling the RoundTable that ETHS cannot discuss personnel matters.
The last two items on the agenda were parking enforcement and crossing guards, but the committee tabled those discussions, instead addressing the need for a meeting between the city and the two school districts regarding the recently approved Fifth Ward TIF District.
For months, controversy has continued over the inclusion of the new Trulee assisted living development – a possibly significant source of tax funds – in the TIF boundaries, and both Witherspoon and Horton requested a meeting with the city to find a solution.
The City-School Liaison Committee typically meets three times during each academic year. The next meeting date has not been scheduled.