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Stark stats: Higher education is trio's key to urban rebirth

Wednesday, March 17, 2010  
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By Jeff Kolkey
Posted Mar 17, 2010 @ 12:32 AM

ROCKFORD — A grim picture of a poverty-stricken and undereducated region emerged as Mayor Larry Morrissey, SupplyCore CEO Peter Provenzano and City Administrator Jim Ryan spoke.

Their lecture Tuesday at Rockford College was advertised as "Setting the Context: A Candid View of Our City’s Challenges and Opportunities.”

It lived up to its billing: The trio pulled few punches in presenting statistics showing that wealth has fallen and poverty grown even as Rockford has sprawled in the past five decades.

"This is a stark look at our community tonight, but it’s a frank and honest one,” Provenzano said.
Community counts

It was the first of three lectures organized by the Higher Education Alliance for the Rock River Region, a consortium of area educational institutions, including Northern Illinois University, Rockford College, Rock Valley College and the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford.

Organizers hope the series will serve as a call to action, leading the community to set new goals to reduce poverty and convincing more of the population to improve their education — to at least match the national average when it comes to the data.

Earlier in the day, figures were released showing that January unemployment climbed to 19.7 percent in Boone and Winnebago counties.

Poor, less educated
Provenzano opened the lecture by discussing poverty: About 35,000 people in the Rockford region live in poverty, and 36 percent of them are children. Nationally, children make up 19 percent of those living in poverty.

Data he presented showed that, historically, the number of available workers has grown even as the actual work force has declined during recessions in the Rock River Valley.

More than 13.5 percent of residents older than 25 in the Rockford region, have no high school diploma, 8.1 percent have less than a ninth-grade education, and 18.8 percent have a bachelor’s degree or better. Comparatively, 24.4 percent of Americans and 26.1 percent of Illinoisans have a bachelor’s degree, according to the 2008 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

They said the data make it clear that the community must encourage more people to improve their educational level to break a cycle of poverty and dependency.

Missing pieces
"We need to become a college town,” Ryan said. "More than one-third of our kids are living in poverty, and their parents have not even received a high school” education.

Morrissey said education too often is disconnected from careers and the community. He recalled his high school experience, saying he learned little about actual careers and nothing about the community or local government.

"I didn’t have a single class in high school talking about local government. The real challenge, the future, has got to be about a system where education, career and community are connected.”

Reach staff writer Jeff Kolkey at or 815-987-1374.

This story appeared at on March 17, 2010 and at on March 16, 2010.

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