The Continuum of Learning arose out of concerns among local leaders about the United States’ slipping in global rankings of educational attainment and labor market changes necessitating a more educated workforce. In light of this emerging reality, they wondered what should and could Sangamon County be doing to assure that its children, teenagers, and young adults are progressing successfully through each stage of their development and poised to contribute to the region’s economy? Interest in answering this question bubbled up at different places in the community at about the same time. There was enough intersection among those involved that it was not long before they realized they were having the same conversation and that it might be more efficient and effective to bring it altogether under one umbrella.
The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce
The impetus for the Continuum began with the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. In November 2005, the Chamber, recognizing the critical link between education and economics, established the Business-Education Partnership (BEP). The charge to the BEP was to work with all stakeholders to create the skilled, knowledgeable, and productive workforce need to support a healthy environment for economic development.
In the months following the formation of the BEP, local leaders agreed that a new effort was needed to boost economic development and to pave the way established the Quantum Growth 5 (Q5) Initiative. Q5 lent its support to the idea that the high school completion and college-going rates in Sangamon County needed to increase.
United Way of Central Illinois
As both the BEP and Q5 were getting underway, in 2006 the United Way of Central Illinois began considering how to respond to its national organization’s call for “community impact.” Education was already a top priority for the local United Way. And so, the question was how to achieve a measurable impact on critical educational outcomes in the community. However, United Way was concerned about trying to achieve this impact alone. Q5’s interest in increasing educational attainment seemed to answer this concern. The Chamber and United Way started to plan a joint initiative focused on achieving educational improvements, with the Chamber emphasizing secondary and post-secondary education and United Way the education of younger children. In other words, a “continuum of learning.”
Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln
The seeds of the educational interest of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln date back to 2003, when it was given a matching grant opportunity by the Grand Victoria Foundation to address local issues of workforce development and early childhood care and education, among other things. The Community Foundation, then called the Sangamon County Community Foundation, secured the match and got the grant for its Community Works program. On the heels of this effort, Grand Victoria made more funding available, and the Community Foundation in 2007 secured another Community Works grant with the Chambers’ Q5 initiative supplying most of the money needed for the match. It was no surprise then in the summer and fall of 2007, both the Community Foundation and the United Way were at the table when the Chamber convened K-12 and postsecondary education leaders and representatives of local social service agencies to begin designing the Continuum of Learning as a focused initiative.
In its first few years, the Continuum has had notable successes mobilizes people and money to meet important educational needs in the community. In 2010, it orchestrated a program, which is still going, to gradually build a system in the county through which every four and five year old is screened for kindergarten readiness. To date, more than 6,000 young children have been screened. In addition to being shared with parents and elementary schools, screening results have been used by preschools and child care centers to identify and address developmental needs.
In 2009, as a result of efforts by the Continuum of Learning, the Community Foundation and the Chamber received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to rapidly increase Sangamon County’s nursing work force to respond to the growing healthcare needs of the local population.
The Center for State Policy and Leadership on the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois became the fourth organization partner of the Continuum of Learning in 2013, bringing with it an interest in using evidence and research to improve local problem solving. Shortly after the Center joined the Continuum, a new opportunity arose, through the Chamber’s Q5 initiative, to design an educational undertaking with the potential to have a transformative impact on the community. Local educational leaders were convened to develop a white paper addressing the community’s highest priority needs in education. The white paper they produced called for an initiative that would focus on the educational challenges of less advantaged children in our community. This initiative was given the name Sangamon Success to emphasize the Continuum’s commitment to assuring that all children in our county have the opportunity succeed.