First-generation college students earn Associate’s Degrees in East St. Louis


Earlier this year, four East St. Louis students became the first high school students to graduate from Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC) with an associate’s degree. Their success was the culmination of a multiyear community effort to reshape college and career readiness in a community that has long struggled with poverty.

“We want students to go to SWIC and get a headstart on their college education,” said Sydney Stigge-Kaufman, Director of Strategic Partnerships, East St. Louis School District 189. “Sometimes it’s helping students, especially first-generation college students, to say ‘I can do this and I can be successful in high school.’”

The evolution of East St. Louis’ collective impact effort for kids, East Side Aligned, parallels the growth of the Illinois 60 by 25 Network. Collective impact efforts in East St. Louis were just beginning to coalesce in 2014 when community leaders attended the first 60 by 25 Network meeting.

“The 60 by 25 Network has been instrumental,” said Stigge-Kaufman. “We were involved in the very first conference, and that was very eye-opening. We thought, ‘This is where we need to be headed for college and career readiness for our youth.’ That was a guiding light for us.”

Illinois 60 by 25 Network provided resources for an asset mapping report by Jobs for the Future, a national leader in bridging education and work to increase economic mobility and strengthen the economy. The 2014 asset mapping analyzed the organizations and institutions involved in educational and economic initiatives and made a set of recommendations. One was around dual degree programs and deepening the partnership between District 189 and SWIC.

“We knew we needed to move the needle, but we didn’t know how to do that for the upper ages,” said Stigge-Kaufman. “The JFF report directed us in our work, showed where the gaps were and gave a full picture of the community.”

East Side Aligned is looking ahead to more opportunities to scale up its activities and leverage offerings through Illinois 60 by 25, such as a recently received STEM Challenge grant that connects students with a real-world project through a local energy company.

“We struggle with capacity, and our organizations are stretched pretty thin,” said Stigge-Kaufman. “We understand the importance of an intermediary like 60 by 25 to move forward.”