We re-imagined the annual Illinois 60 by 25 Network Conference for 2021, Forward Together – Navigating Uncertainty and Advancing to 60% by 2025. We offered the high-quality conference content you have counted on since 2014 over four days: February 22–25, 2021. There was no cost to attend the conference. 

To access session recordings and resources, click the tabs below or visit our YouTube playlist.

Sessions Archive

Welcome from the Network Organizers and Opening Plenary

A Conversation with State Education Leaders on the Impact of COVID-19 and Reaching 60% Postsecondary Attainment by 2025

The opening plenary will feature:

Juliana Stratton
Lieutenant Governor of Illinois
Dr. Carmen Ayala
State Superintendent of Education, Illinois State Board of Education
Dr. Brian Durham 
Executive Director of the Illinois Community College Board
Ginger Ostro 
Executive Director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education
Eric Zarnikow 
Executive Director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission

Opening remarks will be offered from Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, whose portfolio includes leading the Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative, and chairing the Illinois Council on Women and Girls, the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, the Military Economic Development Council, and the Illinois River Coordinating Council. As a lifelong advocate for youth and creating safe spaces for our young people, the Lieutenant Governor’s remarks will highlight the importance of closing equity gaps for Illinois’ future.

Jonathan Furr, Executive Director of Education Systems Center at NIU, will host a conversation about how each of the State education agencies has shifted their work to better support students across the P-20 system in light of COVID-19. They will also discuss how they are implementing equity-focused plans developed in 2020 to ensure that Illinois continues to make progress as we work towards our 60% by 2025 postsecondary attainment goal.

In addition, the Illinois 60 by 25 Network Organizers will provide an overview of the Network, including current activities and future plans. If you’re a first-time attendee, this will help orient you to the Network. For returning attendees, don’t miss the Network updates!

Breakout Session

Exploring Strategies for Educators to Advance Racial Equity

Dr. Decoteau J. Irby
College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago

This workshop will provide attendees with critical principles to curate white racial discomfort for anti-racist racial learning. Curated white racial discomfort refers to racially discomforting learning experiences that are continuous and thoughtfully planned to transform white educators’ personal and collective understandings of race and racism. When it comes to school-based racism, white educators’ psychological and emotional well-being is upheld at the expense of Black and Brown students’ well-being. Thus, an essential requirement for enacting racial equity change is to ensure that white educators continually experience levels of racial discomfort that ensure their continued learning and, by extension, the continued betterment of learning opportunities for Black and Brown students.

Breakout Session

Dual Credit Policy Recommendations and Developing Effective Dual Credit Partnerships

Rodrigo Lopez
Elgin Community College and Illinois Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships
Sarah Stashkiw
College of Lake County and Illinois Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships
Aimee Galvin
Stand for Children
Heather Penczak
Education Systems Center at NIU

The first half of this session will provide background on the current state of dual credit in Illinois and review policy recommendations for continued improvement and increased access to dual credit. The second half of the session will cover the Model Partnership Agreement, including a community example and time for attendees to determine how it might help address their dual credit partnerships.

Breakout Session

Opportunities and Challenges of Virtual Learning

Bridget French
Rockford Public Schools
Dr. Patrick Hardy
Proviso East High School

In this session, participants will learn how two communities developed and are currently implementing virtual and remote learning, including key successes and ongoing challenges. Leaders from Rockford Public Schools will share their strategies for credit recovery and social-emotional learning. Proviso East High School, the first certified Marzano Academy High School for personalized competency-based education (PCBE) in the nation, will share how they have used PCBE to support continuity and mitigate learning loss. Both presenters will discuss how they ensure that equity is at the center of their approaches.

Breakout Session

Building Your Own Virtual Toolbox to Engage Students, Families, and Partners

Jasmine Jetton-Gonzales + Ana Moya
Illinois Student Assistance Commission

While the pandemic has shifted how we engage with students, families, and community partners, schools continue to support their students in guiding and preparing for life after high school. In this session, participants will gain information on useful virtual opportunities and resources to help them and their students navigate through their postsecondary pathways. If you are interested in widening your toolbox on how to virtually engage with students, families, and partners as students go through their postsecondary pathway, this is the session for you!


Socially Just Community Colleges: Beyond Espousing Diversity to Actualizing Equity

Dr. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher
Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Community colleges occupy the intersection of social justice and educational change. They play a critical role in advancing opportunity and mass higher education with close to half of all undergraduates attending. As a centerpiece of American higher education institutional diversity, they are the chief postsecondary pathway for historically underrepresented, marginalized, and underserved students. Calling attention to the competing missions of the community college, Dr. Zamani-Gallaher will highlight postsecondary education as a collective public good while underscoring the work still needed in advancing equitable student experiences and outcomes in the two-year sector.

Breakout Session

Best Practices and Innovative Models for Virtual Work-Based Learning

Nikki James
Northeastern University
Heather Penczak
Education Systems Center at NIU

This presentation will focus on how virtual work-based learning can be designed for sustainability, equity, and long-term use. Moreover, we will discuss how virtual WBL helps break down common barriers like transportation, expands the type of partner sites and mentors that communities can engage with, and expands access, especially to students with limited social capital. The presentation provides sample activities, resources, and community models for ensuring authentic, high-quality WBL in a virtual setting.

Practera: Powering Experiential Learning

Practera is a customizable, technology enabled platform for structured virtual and hybrid work-based learning. Through a partnership with Practera, Illinois communities have free access to pilot Practera through SY21-22. Participation as a pilot site will include: professional development opportunities, regular community of practice sessions, and technical assistance throughout. To express interest and learn more about participating as a Practera pilot site please fill out the following form

Breakout Session

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) as a Lever for Equity

Ruth Cross
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

This session will focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) as a lever for equity. Participants will gain an understanding of an updated CASEL definition of SEL and explore the equity elaborations for each of CASEL’s five core competencies. We will review how to establish learning environments that feature collaborative relationships and empower adults and youth to co-create thriving schools that contribute to healthy, just and safe communities.

Breakout Session

Implementing Team-Based Challenges in College and Career Pathway Endorsements

Becky Goldberg + Emily Cooper
Illinois Science and Technology Institute
April Sonnefeldt + Dr. Nana Bonsu
Illinois Health Occupations Students of America
Juan Jose Gonzalez
Education Systems Center at NIU

Team-Based Challenges (TBC) are an integral component of the Work-Based Learning Continuum, but effective implementation can be a challenge given the emphasis on traditional internships or career exploration. However, districts don’t have to create opportunities for Team-Based Challenges from scratch. Learn how you can partner with existing programs to implement TBC through in-classroom and out-of-classroom opportunities. Speakers from Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA), a Career and Technical Student Organization, and the Illinois Science and Technology Institute’s (ISTI) Stem Challenge Program will share TBC examples and opportunities for partnership.

Breakout Session

Student Academic Achievement and COVID: How Far Our Students Are Behind and How We Can Catch Them Up

Dr. Shawn Bergman
Vela Institute and Appalachian State University
Austin Melzer
Appalachian State University
Sam Nelson
Illinois Student Assistance Commission

The impact of COVID-19 on students’ lives is well-documented. Extrapolations from previous research suggest a COVID academic impact, but the specific student-level implication has not been examined and is not fully understood. This interactive session will share how schools are using localized, student-level data to identify the specific circumstances for which students will experience more significant COVID learning disruptions and how those projections are being used to develop customized, evidence-based plans to remediate academic achievement. The session will allow attendees to share student academic struggles and explain how data analytics and evidence-based practices can guide plans to remediate COVID’s academic impact.

Student Voices

Puranjay Gupta
Rockford Auburn High School
Isaiah Haynes
East St. Louis Sr. High School
Makaela Johnson
Lindblom Math/Science Academy
Alex Medina
Mendota High School

Hear from students in the 60 by 25 Network’s Advisory Council about their experiences in navigating the education system as they consider their choices for life after high school.


The Role of Collective Impact in Advancing Equity

Jessica Pizarek
Dreama Gentry
Partners for Education at Berea College
Sondra Samuels
The Northside Achievement Zone
Edith Njuguna
Education Systems Center at NIU

Collective Impact provides an approach for key actors from different sectors to work together on a common agenda to solve complex social problems. In this session, attendees will learn about the key pillars of collective impact and hear from leaders that have implemented collective impact strategies with an equity lens to address both programmatic and systemic change in their communities. Speakers will discuss how challenges in the community are identified, who is invited to the problem-solving table, and how data are used for continuous improvement.

Breakout Session

Workshop on Strengthening Collaborative Data Capacity

Emily Rusca + Charlie Rosemond
Education Systems Center at NIU
Helen Zhang
Advance Illinois

This workshop will provide attendees with tools to figure out what data can help answer the questions they have about their community or work and what to do with the information once they obtain it. Attendees will learn about data resources available to them and easy-to-use data protocols that can inform their collective impact efforts. They will then practice adapting and using a protocol in a virtual context.

Breakout Session

Translating Parent, Student, & Practitioner Needs into Policy & Practice

Melissa Figueira + Jessica Ramos
Advance Illinois
Keisa Garrett
East St. Louis School District 189

Advance Illinois will highlight high-level findings and themes from its Learning Recovery Focus Group Report. A panel of community members will then share their experiences with COVID-19’s impact on their school communities, including the innovative solutions and best practices they rely on to support learning recovery both academically and social-emotionally.

Breakout Session

Innovations in Education Pathways During COVID-19

Kate Morris
Plainfield East High School
Steve Lamberti
Plainfield Central High School
Dr. Phil Pakowski
Plainfield South High School
Rasheeda Love
Carbondale Community High School
Heather Penczak
Education Systems Center at NIU

This session will highlight communities who found innovative ways to address challenges they ran into during COVID-19 and how they will move forward with those innovations to enhance and broaden access to Education pathways.

Breakout Session

Local Advisory Panels for Transitional Instruction: Promising Practices and Lessons Learned

Janis Jones
Sauk Valley Community College
Joe Bergman + Arnitria Shaw + Elizabeth Carrico
Illinois Central College
Dr. Ginger M. Reynolds
Education Systems Center at NIU

Panelists from 60 by 25 Network Leadership Communities will share insights, promising practices, and lessons learned about their Local Advisory Panels (LAP) for Transitional Instruction. Communities who have been coordinating LAPs for multiple years or who are just getting started will benefit from these conversations.

Breakout Session

Connecting Opportunity Youth With Jobs and Education

Carl Schneider
Chicago Public Schools
Caroline D’Andrea
Education Systems Center at NIU
Eddie Perez
Business and Career Services

To reach 60 by 25, we have to engage opportunity youth. This session will highlight the Career Development Experience Toolkit Companion, which identifies best practices and models for connecting opportunity youth with education and jobs. You will also hear from a practitioner who works with opportunity youth about his experiences and lessons learned.

Breakout Session

The Commerce Connection: Collaborating With Your Chamber of Commerce to Reach Local Employers

Jessica Linder Gallo
Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce
Jancy Lafollete
McLean County Chamber of Commerce

This session will explore how working with your local chamber of commerce can support your community in advancing the 60 by 25 goal. Speakers will provide an overview of the role that their chambers of commerce play in communities, highlight current partnerships, and discuss effective strategies to engage employers.


Building a More Equitable Future: Rethinking the College Mobility Narrative & Local Efforts to Close Opportunity Gaps in the Workforce

Michael Collins
Adrian Esquivel
Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance
Emily Rusca
Education Systems Center at NIU

As Illinois and the U.S. continue to grapple with the impacts of Covid-19 and work to rebuild the economy, it is imperative to consider how existing systems, narratives, and practices serve to reinforce disparities across our communities. This session will include national research and a historical perspective on how postsecondary attainment efforts have failed to fully grapple with the legacy of structural racism, and will challenge participants to reconsider the college mobility narrative to better understand what is necessary to remove barriers to economic mobility for people of color. Participants will also learn about efforts in Chicagoland to understand and identify key equity gaps in the workforce, enhance college and career pathways systems and programs, and challenge employers to play a re-envisioned role to close equity gaps. The session will conclude with a discussion of implications for the field to address issues of social capital, skills, and the role each part of our education and training systems can play in creating a more equitable future.

Breakout Session

Affordability and Postsecondary Opportunities in Rural Communities

Dr. Kyle Westbrook
Partnership for College Completion
Dr. Jennifer Garrison
Vandalia Community Unit School District #203

This session will discuss the findings from the Partnership for College Completion’s 2019 report “Priced Out: Rural Students, On Illinois’ Disinvestment in Higher Education and What Can Be Done About It.” The report discusses unique challenges to accessing postsecondary options for rural students and local examples of how students and the communities are responding, particularly in Vandalia and the broader Fayette County.

Breakout Session

Community and School District Collaborations: Collective Impact Approach to Support Young Learners

John C. Borrero
The Collaboration for Early Childhood in Oak Park
Grace Araya
Illinois Action for Children
Trish Rooney
Fox Valley United Way
Mary Haley
Addison Early Childhood Collaborative

In this session, hear from three early childhood community collaborations whose work engages local school districts, early childhood providers, community organizations, business leaders, and higher education institutions to support young children and their families. Attendees will learn about gaps in opportunity that many preschool children encounter. We will discuss strategies for how community collaborations can inform preschool practice, support smooth transitions from community-based settings to schools, and ensure families receive comprehensive supports that enable children to enter kindergarten ready to thrive and succeed.


Building Currency in Education Pathways to Address the Teacher Shortage

Pam Witmer
Golden Apple Foundation
Alan Mather
Golden Apple Foundation
Juan Jose Gonzalez
Education Systems Center at NIU

Many organizations are creating teacher pathways and programs. However, ensuring there is currency for those programs and smooth transitions from secondary to postsecondary to job placement is still developing. In this session, you will learn about EdSystems’ new partnership with the Golden Apple Foundation, which offers unique opportunities for Pathway Endorsement earners in education. The Golden Apple Foundation will also discuss how they partner with postsecondary institutions and school districts to further students’ advancement.


We will come together one final time to reflect on four days of learning and how we will apply the learning to our work.


Grace Araya is the Director of Community Systems Statewide Supports at Illinois Action for Children. She leads a team that provides training and technical assistance to early childhood collaborations across the state. The supports are focused on strengthening local communities’ ability to develop and implement community-wide, collaborative strategies that improve outcomes for children and families. She has been in the field of early childhood education for twenty years and has worked in various capacities including Teacher Assistant, Head Teacher, Program Coordinator and Program Director. Araya holds an M.A in Early Childhood Education, a Professional Educator License in Early Childhood Education with an ESL endorsement as well as an A.M. in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Carmen I. Ayala was appointed by the State Board of Education effective March 1, 2019. Prior to her arrival at the Illinois State Board of Education, Dr. Ayala had served since 2012 as the superintendent of Berwyn North School District 98, where she steadily turned around lower-performing schools.

Dr. Ayala has held a wide variety of roles in her 36-year education career. She was the assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at Plainfield District 202 prior to her service in Berwyn. Additionally, Ayala served as the director of School Improvement and Programs at Community Consolidated School District 300. She also served as an assistant superintendent, director of Bilingual Services, and teacher in Aurora East School District 131. She began her career in education as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools.
She previously served as an executive board member on the Latino Policy Forum, where she championed equitable funding and increased resources for English Learners.

Dr. Ayala has held positions on numerous boards and committees, including the Illinois State Board of Education Bilingual Advisory Council, Illinois Women in Educational Leadership, Illinois Resource Center, and the Illinois Professional Review Panel for Evidence-Based Funding.

Throughout her career, Dr. Ayala has received multiple honors, including the 2018 Leadership Award and the Excellence in Education Award from the League of Latin American Citizens, as well as the Kane County Distinguished Educator award. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Mundelein College with a focus on bilingual-bicultural education and Spanish literature. She went on to earn her master’s degree in business administration from Dominican University and her doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from Loyola University of Chicago.

Dr. Shawn Bergman is the co-founder and Research Director at the Vela Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing educational outcomes. Shawn is also the Kulynych/Cline Distinguished Professor of Psychology, the co-founder and current Area Research Director of the Center for Analytics Research and Education, and the founder and co-director of the HR Science Research Team at Appalachian State University. His work focuses on the application of quantitative methods, science, and psychology to solve problems. He has published 38 academic articles, co-authored over 70 professional and technical reports, and gave over 100 invited talks and conference presentations. Shawn is a member of the Academy of Outstanding Teachers and Academy of Outstanding Graduate Mentors, has received multiple Department of Psychology Psi Chi Excellence in Teaching Awards, earned one of Appalachian’s Board of Governors Excellence in Teaching Awards, and has been inducted into the Appalachian State Faculty Hall of Fame.

Dr. Nana Bonsu, MD is a physician who has been an educator for over 20 years. Currently, he is the Allied Health Coordinator at North Grand High School in Chicago, and the Illinois Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) Vice Chairman and Chicago Region Board Representative. While educating future health professionals, he maintains his footing in the health field by supervising his medical group Healthcare Concierge, his health education firm Medical Info Knowledge and Awareness, and his non-profit LSK NAVA Foundation, which is focused on improving healthcare deliverance in Uganda and across Africa. He is a board member and Nursing Faculty at Aquarius Institute, and teaching Faculty at RUSH Hospital. His current focus is on changing the way medicine and healthcare is delivered and taught. He maintains the mantra, "Practice Makes Permanent!"

John Borrero is the Executive Director of the Collaboration for Early Childhood in Oak Park, Illinois. At the foundation of his 30-year career has been the desire to impact the lives of young children and their families. John came to the Collaboration from the American Academy of Pediatrics, culminating more than a decade of grant-based leadership work, serving children and families on behalf of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, the Office of Head Start and the U.S. Maternal Child Health Bureau.
John is also proud to have held early childhood adjunct faculty positions at several institutions, most recently at New York University and Bank Street College of Education in New York City, where he has delivered instruction in child development, curriculum design, early literacy, early childhood special needs and equity issues in early childhood.

Elizabeth Carrico is a Professor of Mathematics at Illinois Central College in Peoria, Illinois, where she is also currently the ICC Transitional Math Coordinator. She has taught math at ICC for 21 years and has served on various committees including the Faculty Senate, the Curriculum Committee, and a Shared Governance Task Force.

Elizabeth received a Master’s Degree in Mathematics from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Michael Collins is Vice President at JFF, a national non-profit working to transform our nation’s education and workforce systems to accelerate economic advancement for all. Mr. Collins serves on JFF’s executive team and provides leadership for JFF’s programs. For the last 16 years he led a multi-state postsecondary reform network working to increase completion rates for learners from low income-backgrounds by supporting individual colleges and state postsecondary systems to identify and implement evidence-based practices and practitioner-informed policies through reform initiatives such as Achieving the Dream, The Developmental Education Initiative, Completion by Design, the Student Success Center Initiative, and the American Association of Community Colleges Pathways Project. In the fall of 2020, he took the helm of a new JFF effort to increase equity in education, employment, earnings, and economic mobility outcomes for underserved populations in our economy with a special emphasis on Black learners and workers. An inveterate collaborator, he has partnered with nationally recognized organizations such as the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, Carnegie Math Pathways|WestED, the Dana Center, SOVA Solutions, the Community College Research Center, and a host of other organizations, state systems, and philanthropic institutions. Prior to joining JFF, he served as Assistant Commissioner for Participation and Success at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Mr. Collins serves on the boards of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the National Student Clearinghouse and is board chair of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. He is a Pahara-Aspen Fellow, a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, and serves as a commissioner for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Mr. Collins holds a Master of Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Emily Cooper is Director of Programs for the Illinois Science and Technology Institute (ISTI). Emily’s primary focus is on managing the ISTI programs and professional development. Prior to joining ISTC, Emily was a Legal Assistant at Purcell & Wardrope, Chtd. and Hauselman, Rappin & Olswang, Ltd. She developed a passion for education while tutoring students in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. Emily earned her Master of Public Policy degree with a concentration in Education Policy from American University, and holds a B.A. from Indiana University Bloomington.

Ruth Cross is a Senior SEL Consultant and Trainer for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Ruth Cross is Senior SEL Consultant and Trainer for CASEL. She received her MA in Educational Administration and Leadership. Her responsibilities include supporting school districts to implement systemic social and emotional learning district and school wide, which includes consulting with Chicago Public Schools, one of the large school districts participating in the Collaborative District Initiative, coaching smaller districts in DuPage County that partner with CASEL and the DuPage Regional Office of Education, and partnering with the Consortium for Educational Change (CEC) to implement SEL in Central Illinois. She is also a consultant for the CASEL Collaborative States Initiative. Her experience in working on state policy includes co-chairing the committee that wrote the SEL standards and serving as a member of the Illinois State Board of Education for three years. Prior to joining the CASEL staff, Ruth co-chaired the CASEL-IC Advisory Council, whose primary goal was to assist schools with the implementation of comprehensive, research-based social and emotional learning programs in Illinois. From 2003-2007 she was co-chair of the School Policy and Standards Committee, which was created by the Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003 as a part of the Children’s Mental Health Partnership. Until 2007 she worked for 34 years as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and assistant superintendent. As a building principal, she was instrumental in the implementation of programs that enable students to acquire skills to improve interpersonal relationships and prevent conflict. Ruth continues working to expand social and emotional learning in Illinois and other states by presenting administrator academies and leading workshops on the importance of systemic social and emotional implementation in school and districts.

Caroline D'Andrea began her career in college success programming, managing college-to-career transitions, volunteer engagement, and workforce development at The Posse Foundation. During her graduate studies, she supported outreach and partnership efforts through research and project management for the Strategic Data Project at the Center for Education Policy Research. Ms. D'Andrea also served as a Harvard Education Dean's Fellow, supporting Bibb County School District with their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. D'Andrea leverages this experience and training in college success programming, education policy, and community engagement in her work now. At Education Systems Center, she supports work-based learning efforts across Illinois, providing technical assistance to communities and research on various work-based learning initiatives.

Caroline holds a Ed.M. in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a B.A. from the University of Michigan.

Dr. Brian Durham, Executive Director for the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), joined the ICCB in 2001. Throughout this time, he has served the Illinois community college system in numerous capacities. Beginning his career at the agency in workforce development, he has provided leadership for and served as an administrator in adult education and family literacy, career and technical education, research and policy studies, and academic affairs. He has managed the state’s top-rated transfer system, the Illinois Articulation Initiative, managed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (now the Strengthening Career and Technical Education Act), and led the program approval and program review process. Dr. Durham oversaw the implementation of transitional math pathways in the state and worked closely with college stakeholders to design a multiple measures placement policy for the community college system. He serves on the Illinois Workforce Innovation Board (IWIB), the IWIB Executive Committee, the P-20 Council, and as the Board liaison to the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents, among many other areas of service. Prior to his work at the ICCB, Dr. Durham served as an employment and training administrator in El Centro, CA, and as a youth offender coordinator at Illinois Central College in Peoria, IL. Dr. Durham has also taught as an adjunct professor at several institutions of higher education over the years.

Dr. Durham holds a B.A. from the University of Evansville in Political Science, an M.A. in Political Science from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and an Ed.D., from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he focused on Education Policy, Organization and Leadership with a concentration in Higher Education. He has authored articles on community college completion, workforce development and career pathways, among other areas. Dr. Durham is married with children ranging from first grade to college.

Adrian Esquivel works to advance the Funder Alliance’s mission of increasing employment, earnings, and racial equity for underserved workers in the Chicagoland region. Before joining the Funder Alliance, he worked for Enlace Chicago, a community-based organization located in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, working on community and economic development issues.
Adrian holds a B.A. in Social Science from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Melissa Figueira is the Senior Policy Associate for Advance Illinois. She was born and raised in Miami, Florida, where she attended public schools before moving to New York City to study Political Science and Sociology at Columbia University. She earned her Masters Degree in Education Policy from Teachers College at Columbia University, with a focus on K-12 Education. Her interest in advocacy and her firm belief in the need for comprehensive educational opportunity for all children grew out of several years of volunteering as an art teacher and summer school teacher in both Florida City and Harlem. Prior to joining Advance Illinois, Melissa worked with the Research and Policy Support Group at the New York City Department of Education.

Bridget French has been the Executive Director of College and Career Readiness for Rockford Public Schools since 2017. As the Executive Director of CCR, French is responsible for the development, implementation, assessment, and continuous improvement of programs aimed at increasing student access to post-secondary education and employment opportunities, specifically through College and Career Academies and Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. She facilitates curriculum development, revision, and review that supports district initiatives; assists in hiring and supervision of personnel; supports teachers as they implement curriculum; provides mentoring to ensure retention of highly qualified teachers; analyzes achievement data at the district and building levels; oversees master schedule, SAT preparatory programs, and preparation of high school planning guide; oversees early college access programs including Running Start and dual credit; promotes the participation of stakeholders: families, community agencies, state and national organizations; and, guides necessary changes to achieve excellence and equity. Prior to joining Rockford Public Schools, French was the Executive Director of Alignment Rockford, an education-based not-for-profit organization that supports the strategic initiatives of the Rockford Public Schools. French received her B.A. in English from Illinois State University in 2000 and received a certificate in non- profit management from Rockford University in 2012. French currently volunteers on the Board of the YMCA of Rock River Valley, serves as the Board Development Committee Chair as well as serves on the Governance Committee for the YMCA. French volunteers on the Steering Committee for Rockford City Market and on the Rockford Road Runners’
Communications Committee. French also serves on the Board of the National Career Academy Coalition.
Born and raised in Rockford, IL, French has two boys who attend Rockford Public Schools.

Jonathan “Jon” Furr is the Founder and Executive Director of Education Systems Center (EdSystems), a mission-driven policy development and program implementation center based within Northern Illinois University’s Division of Outreach, Engagement, and Regional Development. Jon’s leadership in policy development and system implementation has made him a national authority in career pathways, college and career readiness policy, and longitudinal data systems.

Jon led a multi-year process to develop and enact the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR) Act, which applies a student-centered and competency-based approach to support Illinois students in preparing for postsecondary education and careers. Since the PWR Act’s 2016 passage, Jon and his EdSystems colleagues have spearheaded its implementation, including scaling robust college and career pathway models, building a new statewide system for transitional instruction courses that reduce college remediation needs, and delivering deep support for leading regions to align education and workforce delivery systems.

Additionally, Jon has developed the critical legal and governance structures for the Illinois Longitudinal Data System, including the authorizing legislation, the governance and data sharing agreements, and federal grant proposals that have funded its build-out. With Jon’s leadership, EdSystems and NIU have developed a comprehensive Master Client Index system across multiple agencies, performed unduplicated count analyses of Illinois’ early childhood system, and linked the data needed to assess career pathways education and employment outcomes.

Over the course of his career, Jon has authored multiple comprehensive laws that have shaped the Illinois public education system. He has also authored and managed an array of successful federal grant proposals that have resulted in more than $100 million in federal funding for state system development.

As a compliment to his work in the United States, Jon is engaged in education and workforce initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa. He is Vice-Chairman of the board of a nonprofit supporting career pathways in Liberia, and is leading the development of a comprehensive education dashboard for Rwanda.

Prior to starting EdSystems, Jon was a partner in the public policy and education practice of an international law firm. Earlier in his career, he served as the General Counsel for the Illinois State Board of Education. Jon holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture and history from Washington University in St. Louis, and his Juris Doctorate and Masters of Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.

Keisa Garrett is proud of her heritage within East St. Louis District 189 where she completed her entire K-12 education. For the past 21 years, she has served as a teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal, principal and now as Chief of Schools. Ms. Garrett particularly values her days within the classroom when she worked directly with students. She moved into administration based on a deep internal desire to have a greater impact for all students in East St. Louis. Throughout her leadership positions, Ms. Garrett uses data and relationships as methods to strategically and positively impact student's lives. Some of the milestones of success during her educational career include seven years as an Illinois Spotlight or Honor Roll School (Alta Sita Elementary School), and earning the district's first star on Schooldigger.com with movement from the bottom 10% of state schools (Mason-Clark Middle School). She hails servant leadership as the banner with a quote from Pete Hoekstra, "Real leadership is leaders recognizing that they serve the people they lead". As Chief of Schools, Ms. Garrett serves the community of East St. Louis School District 189 including students, parents, teachers, principals and directors. Her departments address key services including Social Emotional Learning, Attendance and Truancy, Student Services, College and Career Initiatives and Instructional Reform. Ms. Garrett is honored to continue to serve the great "City of Champions." As a licensed educator and administrator,

Ms. Garrett holds a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and a Masters in Educational Administration from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

Dr. Jennifer Garrison is the Superintendent of Vandalia Community Unit School District #203. She is a graduate of Vandalia Schools and has come home to proudly serve and represent her community. This is Dr. Garrison’s twelfth year as a Superintendent in Illinois. Dr. Garrison was as a leader of the Funding Illinois’ Future Coalition and the Fix the Formula Campaign advocating for a new equitable school funding formula which led to the passage of the Evidence- Based Funding for Student Success Act during her tenure as Superintendent of Sandoval C.U.S.D. #501. She has been a committee member for IASA’s Vision 20/20 since its inception in 2013 working on the IL Balanced Accountability Model which was the blueprint for the Every Student Succeeds Act for Illinois. Dr. Garrison has served as a Principal for Ramsey C.U.S.D. #204 and was an elementary teacher for Highland C.U.S.D. #5 where she also achieved her National Board Certification. Jennifer served nine years in the IL Army National Guard and achieved the rank of Sergeant.

Aimee’s expertise and passion are centered around “connecting the dots” between data, policy, politics, and advocacy. This journey started at the University of Illinois where she earned her B.A. in political science, then continued to American University where she earned a master’s degree in political science with a focus in advocacy. Applying academia to on-the-ground action, Aimee next interned with Congress, then joined the affordable healthcare fight during one of its most propitious moments. Starting as the Assistant Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the COPD Foundation, and then promoted to Associate Director, she worked to expand patient access to quality care at the federal and state levels. Her work spanned legislative affairs, implementation, and grassroots advocacy focused on local outreach. Aimee decided to return to her home state in 2016 and join the fight for quality public education.

Now serving as Stand’s Policy & Government Affairs Manager, Aimee might start the day giving public testimony and conclude it poring over spreadsheets and models. In between, you may find her working with a variety of technology platforms to help voters exercise their most fundamental right of citizenry. She helped launch and co-leads Stand’s annual policy fellowship which has worked on equitable funding, CTE expansion, and improved access to dual credit courses.

Dreama Gentry is a rural Appalachian, first-generation college graduate and a hope dealer who works to ensure all Appalachian children have the opportunity to succeed. She is an advocate for rural schools who brings the voice of rural children and rural educators into policy discussions. Since 1999, Dreama Gentry has led Berea College’s educational outreach into Appalachian Kentucky as the executive director of Partners for Education, which has an annual budget of $36 million. Gentry designs and implements projects to that build on four core strategies: engaging families, lifting educational aspirations, building academic skills and connecting college and career. By leveraging funding from federal programs, such as GEAR UP and Promise Neighborhoods, Gentry has provided opportunities and support to more than 100,000 rural Kentucky youth. An Annie E. Casey Children and Family Fellow, she also serves on the board of directors for the Pine Mountain Settlement School and Fahe, a community development non-profit. She is a citizen at large member of the Kentucky Early Childhood Advisory Council and a member of the equity coalition convened by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Gentry holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Berea College and a Juris Doctor from the University of Kentucky.

Becky Goldberg is the Program Manager for the Illinois Science and Technology Institute (ISTI). Becky’s primary focus is on managing the ISTI STEM Challenge program and assisting with the Mentor Matching Engine. Prior to joining ISTI, Becky was a classroom teacher and STEM coordinator in Charlotte, North Carolina. Becky earned her Masters degree in Education from Johns Hopkins University and holds a B.A. in Environmental and Global Health from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Juan Jose Gonzalez began his career as an immigration rights organizer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, where he mobilized immigrant citizens to vote and lobby at the state and federal level for better immigration policy. He then served as the Chicago Director for Stand for Children Illinois, leading their advocacy and policy efforts in the region. Afterwards, he was the Director of Youth and Education Policy for the City of Chicago Mayor’s office under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, managing a portfolio that included elementary and secondary education policy, college access, summer employment, and out-of-school time opportunities.

These work experiences led Mr. Gonzalez to his current role as the Pathways Director for the Education Systems Center. Mr. Gonzalez is heavily involved in the implementation of the Illinois Postsecondary Workforce Readiness Act, the College and Career Pathways Endorsements framework, and other dual credit pathways in school districts and communities throughout the state.

Mr. Gonzalez received his B.A. at Princeton University and a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Chicago Harris School.

Puranjay Gupta
Rockford Auburn High School, Class of 2022

I have been appointed to work with the mayor through the Mayor and Chairman’s Youth Leadership Council (MYAC) in developing an anti-vaping/cigarette ordinance, a campaign for National Prevention Week, and other activities promoting community health.

Mary Haley is with Metropolitan Family Services and is the Director of the Addison Early Childhood Collaborative (AECC). In this role, Mary leads a group of 40 partners that provide quality early childhood care and education for children, and family support services to help families prepare their children for school. Mary also serves on the Family Engagement work group of the Addison Resources Connect coalition. Prior to this role, Mary held positions in a national nonprofit serving schools, and in the business sector.

Dr. Patrick Hardy was born in Chicago, Illinois, and began his career in education 22 years ago as a teacher in the Boston Public School district. He has also worked as a Principal and Assistant Superintendent in both the Rockford and Freeport Public School Districts. Dr. Hardy is currently the proud Principal of Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois. During his tenure, Proviso East has experienced an increase in Advanced Placement and Duel Credit course offerings, significant changes in the school’s climate and culture, and a steady increase in the graduation rate. The school reorganized into four College and Career Readiness Academies and transitioned to a competency-based learner model. In March of 2020, Proviso East was honored to be named the first Marzano Academy for personalized competency-based education in the nation! Dr. Hardy holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Secondary Education from Xavier University of Louisiana, a Master of Education Degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, a second Masters of Education degree specializing in school administration from Cambridge College, and a Doctorate of Ministry specialized in Pastoral Studies from Andersonville Theological Seminary. Dr. Hardy also holds a second doctorate, a Ph.D. in Education at Capella University, where he earned the honor, “graduate with distinction.” He is the recipient of the “Those Who Excel Award” for outstanding school administrators and the “Distinguished Citizen Award” given by the Black Hawk Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He was named the 2018 West Cook Region Principal of the Year Award by the Illinois Principal’s Association. He received the Community Education Award by the city of Bellwood, Il., and was named a Marguerite F. Key Fellow by Northern Illinois University’s College of Education.

Isaiah Haynes
East Saint Louis Sr. High School, Class of 2021

I am a co-founder and strong member of L.O.V.E. (Leaving Our Voices Everywhere), a youth-led organization focused on elevating youth voice to the decision making bodies of our community. I received the 2019 Illinois Governor's Volunteer Service Award.

Dr. Decoteau Irby is an Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He wants to make the world better for Black people. He makes music about Black love and liberation and writes academic articles, books, and short stories. He has spent the 15-plus years of his professional life working with teens and adults through a range of community, school, research, and higher educational spaces and organizations to affect societal change. Over time he honed a unique competency in organizational leadership and development with emphases on adaptive change, racial equity improvement, and cooperativism. Drawing on these insights, he helps groups, collectives, and organizations create conditions for anti-racist organizational learning and continuous equity improvement. He holds a B.S. in Economics from College of Charleston in South Carolina, a M.A. in Geography & Urban Studies from Temple University in Philadelphia, and a Ph.D. in Urban Education from Temple University in Philadelphia.

Nikki James is a Learning Scientist and educational technology researcher focused on the design and development of education technology and digital pedagogies that support experiential learning. Nikki has been designing and delivering experiential learning programs since 2002 and has delivered experiential learning programs within higher education institutions from both the faculty and program manager perspective. A shift in focus in 2014 lead her first to an Instructional Designer role at Practera and then to her current role as a Learning Science Researcher at Northeastern University where she focuses on the development of a technology enabled virtual internship and virtual team based project that leverages real-time learning analytics to support experiential learning design and facilitation. Nikki has published papers and presented her work at ASU/GSV, the National Society for Experiential Learning Conference and various international conferences including Learning Analytics & Knowledge Conference, World Association for Co-operative Education and the IMS Global – LILI Conference.

Jasmine Jetton-Gonzales is a Capacity Development Coordinator who works with partners to leverage existing resources to produce sustainable initiatives, foster partnerships, and connect state policy efforts to local needs and initiatives. Jasmine believes in the power of cultivating partnerships to achieve a greater result and produce a collective impact. Before joining the capacity development staff at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), Jasmine supported students and families through the college-going process as an ISACorps member for the Lake County district. Jasmine recently became a nationally certified Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitator and has facilitated consensus building, action planning, and strategic planning workshops for state and local partners. She holds a Master of Public Administration from the University of Illinois Springfield and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Educational Administration and Foundations focused in Leadership, Equity and Inquiry from the Illinois State University.

Makaela Johnson
Lindblom Math/Science Academy, Class of 2021

I co-founded an event in Englewood called 'Community Day,' where I provide the less fortunate with toiletries, a hot meal, clothing, and shoes so they have all the basic necessities that they need to live. This was my way of stepping up to show them that someone cares.

Janis Jones has worked in education for 30 years in roles spanning faith-based, nonprofit, and public education, PreK-college. She currently serves as the PASS/College & Career Readiness facilitator for Sauk Valley Community College with a focus on helping area districts implement aspects of the PWR Act, with the goal of creating successful student transition to postsecondary and career life.

Janis holds an MA in English from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and a Master’s in Education/Instructional Strategies from Rockford University.

Jancy LaFollette joined the McLean County Chamber of Commerce and the McLean County Community COMPACT as the Workforce Development and COMPACT Manager in April 2019, where she focuses on building a robust, diverse, and work ready talent pipeline in McLean County. In October of 2020 Jancy took on additional responsibilities with the Chamber and in addition to her workforce and COMPACT roles also oversees Member Services for the Chamber. Jancy previously served with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) in Des Moines, IA, as a Program Officer for both AmeriCorps VISTA and Senior Corps grants. Jancy has worked to strengthen communities through service and volunteerism since 2001 when she served as the Graduate Public Service Intern (GPSI) with the Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service (ICVCS), working on volunteer outreach and serving as the AmeriCorps training coordinator. Following her tenure with ICVCS, Jancy became the AmeriCorps Director for the Illinois Public Health Association; working with a 20 member AmeriCorps team in county and local health departments across the state of Illinois. In 2004, she joined the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) as a Program Specialist with the Illinois State Office in Chicago and in 2008 moved to the Des Moines, IA office. Jancy holds a bachelor degree in Agriculture from Western Illinois University and a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Jancy’s family farms in Knox and Peoria counties and she has enjoyed being back in Illinois and engaging with the Bloomington-Normal community.

Steve Lamberti has served as the Humanities Division Chair at Plainfield Central High School for 13 years. He is also the instructor of the dual-credit course Exploration of the Teaching Profession (in conjunction with the University of St. Francis).

Jessica Linder Gallo is the President & CEO of the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce in Aurora, IL. As the first female and the youngest executive in the organization’s more than 100 year history, Jessica leads the effort to serve the nearly 600 diverse chamber members by providing tools and resources vital to business success. Before leading the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce, Jessica served as Executive Director of the Galesburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Jessica holds a B.S. in Business with a major in Hospitality Leadership from DePaul University and was awarded the 2017 Alumna of the Year by the DePaul School of Hospitality Leadership. She also holds a Masters of Political Science focused in Applied Community and Economic Development from Illinois State University.

Rodrigo López has worked to support students and their families across northern Illinois through their transition from secondary to postsecondary education. He started his career as a college advisor for the College Advising Corps, where he spent considerable time building partnerships between school districts, postsecondary institutions, and community-based organizations. His experience in supporting community initiatives aimed to increase resources to help families navigate the college-admissions process solidified his passion to work in the community college system. Mr. Lopez currently serves as the Assistant Dean of School Partnerships. He manages the college’s dual credit partnerships where he is focused on building intentional and high-valued experiences for high school students. He also provides leadership to the region’s college-career pathways and supports the college’s Perkins Programs of Study work. Mr. Lopez also serves as the President of the Illinois Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, the state’s chapter to the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. Mr. Lopez received his B.A. and Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is in the process of completing his Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Illinois State University.

Rasheeda Love is in her 10th year of teaching Family and Consumer Sciences, Secondary Education and in her 3rd year as club sponsor for Educators Rising. She and her husband Joe resides in Carbondale, IL where she currently teaches at Carbondale Community High School. Rasheeda earned her Masters of Science degree in Curriculum and Instruction, Teacher Leadership from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in May of 2017. She earned her Bachelors of Science degree in Family and Consumer Sciences, Secondary Education from Bradley University in May 2004. Before becoming a highschool teacher, Rasheeda coached Division I Women’s Basketball for 8 years at both Southern Illinois University- Carbondale and Tennessee State University.

Alan Mather, President, joined Golden Apple in the winter of 2018, leading the education work of the organization. A native of rural Indiana, he came to Chicago in 1986 to teach high school English in the Chicago Public Schools. After more than twelve years of teaching in neighborhood high schools, Alan joined the district’s first Principal Preparation program and became the first Assistant Principal at Northside College Prep High School. After six years, Alan was named the founding principal of Lindblom Math & Science Academy, where he grew a school over 110 students to more than 1200. In his ten years at the school, Lindblom became the top performing majority African-American school in Illinois. In 2014, Alan was awarded the inaugural Stanley C. Golder Award from Golden Apple for School Leadership. He then went to serve on the CEO’s Leadership Team at CPS as the Chief of the Office of College and Career Success.

Alex Medina
Mendota Township High School, Class of 2023

I led a group project on sexual abuse and contacted the local charity Freedom House. They sent flyers to give out in class, and I also had them hung around the building. I asked my school resource officer to be a guest speaker about the legal process for sexual abuse. My presentation won $100 to donate to Freedom House.

Austin Melzer is a Master’s student in Appalachian State’s Industrial Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management program working with Vela Institute’s investigation of Covid-19 learning impacts. Austin has previously worked with Appalachian State’s GEAR UP project, providing data insights on the use of interventions aimed at improving academic performance and post-secondary enrollment. Austin also interned with Training Industry in the summer of 2020, assisting in the creation and analysis of learning materials for working professionals.

Kate Morris is the Associate Principal of Curriculum and Instruction at Plainfield East. She was an English teacher for 10 years in Plainfield School District 202. Kate was then the Humanities Division Chair at Plainfield East High school for four years, overseeing Social Studies, English, and ELL.

Kate holds a MA in Educational Leadership and a MA in English.

Ana Moya was a first-generation college student and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Criminology from Dominican University. She joined the Illinois Student Assistance Commission as and ISACorps member for the Triton Community College District, where she found her passion for working with first-generation college students and Spanish-speaking parents. Before joining the Professional Development staff at Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), Ana served as an ISACorps Regional Coordinator for the South and West suburbs.

Sam Nelson is Capacity Management Director at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, the financial aid and college access agency for the state of Illinois. Sam works with stakeholders from multiple sectors across Illinois to support the State’s 60 by 25 goal by increasing partners’ ability to assist students with postsecondary and career exploration, preparation, and attainment by building awareness, collaboration, and opportunities at the local level. This capacity development includes leveraging existing resources to produce greater results through sustainable initiatives, fostering partnerships, and connecting state policy efforts to local needs and initiatives. Sam has been with ISAC for over 27 years and prior to that worked in a college financial aid office.

Edith Njuguna, Director of the Illinois 60 by 25 Network, has extensive experience in designing and implementing programs to improve education outcomes for children and youth in Chicago and internationally. She oversees the Illinois 60 by 25 Network, a collaborative of communities across the State that is driving improved outcomes for young people, and manages resource development and deployment to help communities deepen their impact. She also leads EdSystems’ Career Pathways work in Tanzania.

Since joining EdSystems Edith has led the organization’s fund development and grants management efforts, coordinated stakeholder engagement in policy development and implementation, and worked on collaborative networks including the Illinois 60 by 25 Network and the Great Lakes College and Career Pathways Partnership. Prior to joining EdSystems, Edith was a Senior Program Officer at Grand Victoria Foundation where she stewarded investments of up to $4 million a year in grants related to policy and practice in education and workforce development to support Illinois nonprofits. She has also worked in fund development in the nonprofit sector.

Edith holds a Master’s in Public Service Management from DePaul University, a certificate in Spanish from Universidad Complutense in Madrid, and a BA from the University of Nairobi.

Ginger Ostro brings extensive policy and finance leadership to IBHE. She previously served as interim Chief Financial Officer and Vice-President of Financial Operations at Chicago State University. Earlier in her career, she served as Deputy Executive Director at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission and as Director of the Office of Budget Planning at Governors State University. Ostro served as Executive Director of Advance Illinois as it helped architect the successful effort to fix the nation’s least-equitable K12 funding formula. She played a lead role as budget director and CFO at Chicago Public Schools in developing and implementing a more equitable system of allocating funding across schools as well as managing the district’s $6 billion operating budget and the capital budget. Ostro also served in several roles in state government, including over six years at the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, where she rose to director.

Ginger holds a BA in Politics, Economics, Rhetoric, and Law from the University of Chicago and a Master's in Public Policy, Health, and Human Services from Harvard's Kennedy School. She lives in Chicago.

Dr. Phil Pakowski has nineteen years of experience in Education which include being a Science teacher for ten years, Dean of Students, Assistant Principal for Student Services, and is currently the Associate Principal for Curriculum & Instruction and the SEPI Grant Facilitator for Teacher Pathway Development in District 202. His dissertation was titled – The Impact of Career Education Programs on Student Success.

Heather Penczak has focused much of her career on ensuring students of Chicago Public Schools, in traditional and alternative high school settings, have the work development training and internships experiences necessary to succeed in college and professional settings. Ms. Penczak, in her current role as the Policy and Program Manager at the Education Systems Center, develops state-level supports for work-based learning and providing technical assistance for pathways implementation.

Ms. Penczak possesses a Master’s in Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago, a B.S. from Purdue University and is a certified teacher in secondary education.

As the Youth Services Manager for Business and Career Service Inc. (BCS), in Arlington Heights, IL, Eddie Perez is equally comfortable providing job counseling and direction to youth, students, parents, families and staff, as he is at interacting with senior level employers. His broad youth advocacy and development experience has contributed to Perez becoming a knowledgeable youth advocate with effective supervisory experience. His strengths include exceptional, cultural sensitivity and a unique ability to build rapport with diverse individuals in multicultural settings. The unparalleled compassion Perez shares with both customers and colleagues adds to the many reasons he is respected as an expert in the Workforce Development Industry. He simply wants to help people to “do better.” Perez previously served in a variety of roles, including Youth Services Coordinator (BCS) and Program Coordinator for a nonprofit organization in Northwest Cook County that served underprivileged youth by equipping them with tools needed to succeed academically and help break the cycle of poverty. A Chicago native of the historic Humboldt Park neighborhood, Perez was raised by a single mother. As the oldest of three children, he quickly learned the value of hard work and responsibility. He strives to encourage and motivate youth and young adults to obtain their education along with developing a good work ethic. Perez’ Workforce Development experience began at age 19, providing services to youth accessing the Workforce Investment Act program, the predecessor to WIOA. He believes that especially with youth, he can lead by example. Perez tries to live by the words of the late Roberto Clemente, “Anytime you have the opportunity to make a difference in the world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”

Jessica Pizarek, Senior Associate provides technical assistance, policy and data analysis, and results-oriented facilitative support for coalitions organizing to advance equitable policy and systems change. Since joining PolicyLink in 2013, she has had the opportunity to work deeply with and learn alongside Promise Neighborhood communities and other locally-led coalitions organizing around common goals for advancing more equitable outcomes for kids and families. With ongoing partnership and co-learning, these collaborations have helped to evolve and expand capacity-building supports for intermediaries, have stretched use of data for strategy and narrative change, and have advanced policy change at the state and federal levels. Prior to joining the PolicyLink family, Jess worked with Step Up Savannah, where she supported the planning of a multi-sector cradle-to-career collaborative and contributed to the development of city - and state-level policy agendas for the organization. She holds a master’s degree in Education Policy & Social Analysis with an emphasis in Leadership, Policy, and Politics from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Jessica Ramos leads the Community Engagement team at Advance Illinois. As a proud first generation Chicana with roots stemming from the south west side of Chicago, she is committed to elevating the experiences of Black, Brown, and communities traditionally marginalized to advance equity in education. With experience spanning from Colorado to Illinois, Jessica sees the urgency to organize to disrupt the inequities that continue to impact our communities.

She is committed to systemic change in education that addresses barriers and uplifts communities to access the opportunities our communities need to thrive. During her time at Advance Illinois, she has focused on elevating and centering the voices of communities across the state that have been marginalized by the policy making process. She manages the organization’s Educator Advisory Council, executes on coalition strategy, and diversity, equity, and inclusion work on key education issues.

Jessica studied journalism with concentrations in Latinx studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While there, she covered issues relating to the Black and Latinx experience at the university and built unity within the Latinx student community through her involvement at La Casa Cultural Latina. Prior to joining Advance Illinois, Jessica taught 6th and 8th grade language arts, as well as 9th grade multicultural studies.

Ginger M. Reynolds, PhD is a Senior Fellow at Education Systems Center. She works to assist EdSystems initiatives through policy research and analysis and qualitative evaluation. She is particularly interested in issues of accountability, systems transformation, and the potential of Competency-Based Education to shift education policy toward more student-centered learning.

Ginger is an accomplished senior education leader with over 20 years of experience in a variety of settings including serving as Chief Officer of Research, Evaluation, and Accountability for Chicago Public Schools, as Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning at the Illinois State Board of Education, and as Director of the Chicago Teacher Partnership Program. She is an advocate for equity and committed to serving diverse and underserved communities.

Ginger holds a PhD in Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois. She and her husband enjoy spending time with their daughter and their overactive Labrador, Jake.

Carolyne Rivera started as a high school intern at Education Systems Center through Urban Alliance for ten months. She is now Junior Policy Associate at Education Systems Center.

Carolyne is currently attending City Colleges of Chicago, plans to transfer to a four-year institution and pursue a career in law. She has a passion for helping others which is why she wants to go into law, to ensure people have the right support and resources.

Trish Rooney is currently the Vice President of Programs for Fox Valley United Way, where she oversees the SPARK (Strong Prepared And Ready for Kindergarten) Aurora Early Childhood Collaboration and supports early childhood collaborative efforts in communities that are in Kane and Kendall County and United Way community impact programs. In her role with SPARK, she is charged with bringing together Aurora community school districts; community based early childhood programs, local Head Start programs and local agencies to work in collaboration to achieve the shared community vision of ensuring that all children are Strong, Prepared And Ready for Kindergarten.
Before joining Fox Valley United Way, Trish served 16 years as the Quality Enhancement Manager for the local Child Care Resource & Referral. In her leadership role, she oversaw the early childhood trainings and grants for childcare programs and professionals in DuPage and Kane County, which was funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services and private foundations.
Trish Rooney is a member of the Illinois Early Learning Council (ELC), served as past co-chair of the Family Engagement Subcommittee and now serves as the co-chair of the Community Systems Development Subcommittee. She is also an active member Grand Victoria’s Early Learning Leadership Circle. Trish has an appointed position with the IL Early Childhood Funding Commission and the City of Aurora Education Commission and is a board member of the Aurora Primary Care Consortium and Kane County Fit for Kids.

Charlie Rosemond is the Data and Outcomes Manager at Education Systems Center. He manages collaborative data projects for partners like the Illinois Longitudinal Data System and the Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development. His responsibilities range from shepherding data sharing agreements to advising on state-level data systems to analyzing and visualizing data.

An Education Pioneers Fellow, Charlie brings years of project management and analytical experience to the team. He has consulted Promise Neighborhoods on community indicators and data management, analyzed survey and time series data for a state education agency, and performed econometric research for a foreign government. Previously, he served for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA leading a literacy-oriented community engagement program for college students.

Charlie holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Batten School at the University of Virginia.

Emily Rusca brings her interest in education, workforce development, and social policy to the team as the Director of State Policy & Strategy. She spent four years managing the U.S. State Department-sponsored Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study grant program for a high school exchange nonprofit in San Francisco prior to pursuing a transition to domestic social policy.

Since joining the EdSystems team initially as an Education Pioneers fellow, Emily’s portfolio has spanned career pathways, workforce development, and data work. Her work has included projects such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Youth Employment initiative, the Progressive Pathways Initiative, the Illinois 60 by 25 Network, and the Great Lakes College and Career Pathways Partnership. She leads many of EdSystems’ state policy efforts through a variety of interagency and statewide structures, including the College & Career Readiness Committee of the Illinois P-20 Council and the Workforce Readiness through Apprenticeships & Pathways Committee of the Governor’s Cabinet on Children and Youth.

Emily holds a Master of Public Policy from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and also has a background in international development, city planning, and gender equity work.

Sondra Samuels is the President & CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a collaborative of over 30 partner nonprofits and schools. Along with parents, students, partners, and staff, Sondra is leading a revolutionary culture shift in North Minneapolis focused on ending multigenerational poverty through education and family stability. The NAZ Collaborative is working toward a single goal—to prepare low-income North Minneapolis children to graduate from high school college- and career-ready. NAZ has scaled up in support of over 1,000 parents and 2,300 students as they turn the social service model on its head and lead the creation of a college-bound culture throughout the community. Ms. Samuels has been a resident of North Minneapolis for over two decades and is a national leader committed to results-based leadership and accountability. She, her staff, and their partners work tirelessly to ensure the integration of effective cradle-to-career solutions across the NAZ collaborative — to scale and sustain results across the community and to achieve the systems and policy changes needed for low-income families and children of color to truly share in the prosperity of the Twin Cities Region. Under her leadership, NAZ was named a federal Promise Neighborhood and has become a nationally recognized model for community and systems change. Sondra serves on the leadership team of Generation Next, (A Strive Network), Community Advisory Board of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute, as well as the boards of Center for the Study of Social Policy and Health Partners. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD, and an MBA from Clark-Atlanta University in Atlanta, GA.

Carl Schneider moved to Memphis in 2013 to join Teach for America as a corps member. Carl taught for four years and has experience teaching special education, general education, gifted education, and serving multiple schools at the Network level. After leaving the classroom, Carl engaged parents, educators, and advocates to meaningfully fight for educational justice across Memphis as the Community Organizer at Stand for Children. Carl has designed and disseminated trainings addressing identity, power, and privilege for a variety of nonprofits in Memphis. Next, Carl served as the Director of School Support at ALLMemphis, managing a team that connects schools with an evidence-based language approach in order to promote education equity through literacy. Carl moved to Chicago in August 2020 as a Summer Fellow with Education Pioneers, working with Education Systems Center on career readiness and access. He joined Chicago Public Schools as the Innovation and Incubation as the Campus Governance Manager in December 2020.

April Sonnefeldt, ATC is a certified athletic trainer who has been an educator since 1991. She currently teaches in the Health Sciences Career Academy at West Aurora High School and helped establish the program 26 years ago. She has been serving as the Executive Director for Illinois Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) for the past 7 years. In addition to working as a Career and Technical Educator, she serves as the full-time athletic trainer for the West Aurora Blackhawks.

Sarah Stashkiw’s role as the Manager for College Readiness and Dual Credit at the College of Lake County allows her to follow her passion of increasing students’ access to higher education and working toward closing opportunity gaps to provide equitable outcomes for all students. Her main responsibilities include supporting the college’s dual credit, transitional, and college readiness programming. Before transitioning to higher education, Sarah worked as a middle school Spanish teacher. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Cornell College, her Master of Education in Teaching and Learning from DePaul University, and her Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership through the University of Southern California.

Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, whose portfolio includes leading the Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative, and chairing the Illinois Council on Women and Girls, the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, the Military Economic Development Council, and the Illinois River Coordinating Council.

As a lifelong advocate for youth and creating safe spaces for our young people, the Lieutenant Governor’s remarks will highlight the importance of closing equity gaps for Illinois’ future.

Dr. Kyle Westbrook is the Executive Director of the Partnership for College Completion (PCC). Before being named founding executive director of PCC he served as the Executive Director of Education Policy in the Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Kyle has extensive experience in education having spent 25 years in public education as a teacher, teacher leader, leadership consultant, and district level administrator including 5 years leading the Office of Magnet, Gifted, and International Baccalaureate programs in the Chicago Public Schools. In addition, he has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in history and the history of education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the University of Illinois Chicago. He has served on advisory committees for the Library of Congress, the Newberry Library, and currently serves on the Illinois Advisory Council for the US Commission on Civil Rights. Kyle holds a Bachelor of Science and Masters of Science in Education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois Chicago.

Pam Witmer, Chief of Staff, joined the Golden Apple Foundation in 2019. Pam supports the CEO and President with strategic management of the Foundation. Pam is a licensed attorney and brings an extensive history of work experience with her to Golden Apple, including roles as Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Postsecondary Education Policy at the Mayor’s Office in Chicago. As Deputy Chief of Staff, she managed the administration’s K-12 and postsecondary education portfolio and served as mayoral liaison for Chicago’s higher education community. Prior to her work at the Mayor’s Office, Pam was a Senior Policy Manager at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, a Legislative Analyst at StudentsFirst, and an elementary school teacher. Pam holds a Juris Doctor from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher is Professor of Higher Education/Community College Leadership and Director of the Office for Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL). She previously served as Associate Head of the Department of Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership and Associate Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She serves as the Executive Director of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges (CSCC). Zamani-Gallaher holds a PhD in Higher Education Administration with a specialization in Community College Leadership and Educational Evaluation from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her teaching, research, and consulting activities largely include psychosocial adjustment and transition of marginalized collegians, transfer, access policies, student development and services at community colleges.

Eric Zarnikow is Executive Director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), a state agency providing information and assistance to help make education beyond high school accessible and affordable for Illinois families. ISAC provides comprehensive, objective, and timely information on education and financial aid for students and their families—giving them access to the tools they need to make the educational choices that are right for them. Then, through the state scholarship and grant programs ISAC administers, including the state’s flagship Monetary Award Program, ISAC can help students make those choices a reality. Eric is a former Associate Administrator at the U.S. Small Business Administration, where he led the Office of Capital Access, responsible for all the agency’s programs and operations concerning financial assistance to small businesses, 800 employees and a $90 billion loan and investment portfolio. Prior to his work with the SBA, Eric spent over 25 years in the private sector, including serving as Senior Vice President, Chief Risk Officer and Treasurer at ServiceMaster. Eric serves on several commissions and is currently a trustee of The College Board, serving on its Executive, Investment and Finance Committees and as chair of its Audit Committee. A certified public accountant, Eric received his bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University and MBA from Drake University.

Helen Zhang is the Senior Policy & Analytics Associate at Advance Illinois. She grew up in Seattle before moving to study Public Policy at the University of Chicago, with a specialization on children and families. She gained research experience as an education policy intern at the Brookings Institution and through her undergraduate thesis, which explored the role of social supports in students’ transitions to high school. While at UChicago, Helen also created a Model United Nations accessibility program for Chicago Public Schools students, which involved launching free workshops, developing financial aid packages, and overseeing conference logistics for program participants. Helen’s experiences working directly with students and in research have given her a strong dedication to creating equitable opportunities for all children.