How can we give a voice to at-risk students—kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice? That was kind of the thought behind ICEARY. It’s an organization, but it’s also a movement, and it’s a chance for us to give back to others.
Dr. Mark Klaisner:
The organization was formed in the mid 1990s. A group of us were really passionate about these issues, and we recognized that we were a unique group of people doing unique work. So we created ICEARY, the Illinois Coalition for Educating At-Risk Youth. We began by meeting to champion causes, celebrate successes and even just to complete state grants. Soon we realized that perhaps we could help other educators in Illinois to create their own programs to help at-risk students. As it evolved, a lot of West40 people have ended up joining ICEARY as well.
When you do this kind of work, you’re often isolated from other people who do similar work. For example, if you’re helping homeless students in Moline, you might be the only person doing that in your whole county. And you probably don’t know the educators who are helping homeless kids in Chicago. ICEARY connects those people. Our live, in-person events are a huge part of that.
The ICEARY conference gives our whole team the chance to come together, get to know each other and realize we can grow together. It also provides a lot of information about aspects of professional learning—we learn how to be better educators and then we can implement those lessons back at our home schools. ICEARY meetings energize you for the rest of the year.
The ICEARY events have opened my eyes to the challenges that educators face in other parts of our state, especially in southern Illinois. And I’ve learned things from those educators that I’ve already put into action. ICEARY has also made me more interested in state politics and in the legislation that affects so much of what we do.
That legislation, and our advocacy for it, is so critical. Our conference is traditionally in the spring, but our advocacy for funding is a constant drumbeat that goes on all year long.
Dr. Mark Klaisner:
When we’re advocating for funding, we’ve taken kids all the way to Springfield to talk to budget committees, because legislators have said they like to hear from the students directly. When a 15-year-old looks a legislator in the eye and asks them to fund programs throughout Illinois, that’s powerful. Our kids drive statewide change and that’s a testament to ICEARY’s work. Yes, many of us are from Cook County, but we can help kids everywhere. Our West40 mission statement says that “We will meet people where they are,” and to me that means helping people who happen to be in other parts of our state.
That statewide work is really important, because every community in Illinois has vulnerable kids who need help. We create programs that serve those vulnerable populations. We ask ourselves, “How do we backward-map and track what happens to students who drop out of school? How can we find out what happens to those kids?” Right now the system sort of has this attitude of, “There’s an acceptable number of kids to lose before graduation.” We’ve been okay with that, and we shouldn’t be. We need to create safety nets right inside each of those communities.
Dr. Mark Klaisner:
We see ourselves as activists, and the activism is working. In the last six to seven years our membership has grown dramatically, from 200 members to about 425 members.
And I always say that you don’t have to serve vulnerable kids at your day job to be a part of ICEARY. We need everyone’s help to serve these kids. We need people from all walks of life to get the results we’re talking about. So if you want to help these vulnerable students, and help people throughout Illinois, please join us.