A Conversation With Senator Kimberly Lightford

The Forest Park Review is Now Partnering with The Village Free Press

By Michael Romain

This Saturday, Senator Kimberly Lightford (D-4th) will be hosting her second annual “Connect With Your Future” College Fair on the site of her constituent service offices at 10001 W. Roosevelt Road, Suite 222, Westchester, IL. I talked with Sen. Lightford about the College Fair and how it fit into her larger vision on education.

Can you give us more information on the college fair you’re hosting on Saturday?

This is the second college fair. The first one took place in 2011. We couldn’t do it last year, because of scheduling issues. In 2011, the event was exclusive to high school seniors. This year, we’ve added juniors. I want high school juniors to know how important that year is and to have a leg-up in terms of speaking with institutions and knowing the importance of their ACT scores, their class ranking and other issues. As a junior, you have that time to prepare and be more proactive.

This year, I had a desire to make sure that I brought in every single state university to speak with students intimately. So, they’re going to have to sign-in and sit at the table and talk with college representatives one-on-one. Seniors will also be able to leave with free applications in hand. In addition to public schools, I’ve included two private institutions—Roosevelt and Robert Morris—and several community colleges, such as Triton and the City Colleges of Chicago. Not every high school senior is going to feel ready to go to university right away.

Can you explain how what you’re doing with this college fair fits into your larger vision about education, which, judging by the legislation you’ve passed and the programs you’ve implemented in your district, seems pretty inclusive of all ages and grade levels. For instance, along with the college fair that caters to juniors and seniors, you also conduct Saturday University for grade school children.

In social psychology, they talk about wraparound services. [Wraparound refers to intensive, individualized programs that serve children’s whole well-being through collaborating with the community in which they’re raised]. I believe we should have wrap-around programs for children from pre-school [all the way to high school].

Saturday University is a program I adopted from Phillip Jackson’s Black Star Project. They had already had something like this in place in order to address the drop-out rate and prepare kids for high school. However, Phil’s program was geared toward 5-8th grade boys. I wanted my initiative to address young girls as well.

Basically, from 10am-1pm every Saturday for ten weeks, we [engage each student as active learners]. We have very small classroom ratios. So, for every teacher, we have six students. The very first Saturday, we conduct an assessment of each student to find out where that student is. The students start in homeroom and they rotate at the level they’re at, so you may see sixth graders with seventh graders. Snacks are provided in the middle. It’s been so effective that we’ve had parents come in with praise reports, saying that we’ve turned their formerly ‘C’ student into ‘B’ and ‘A’ students. The program is totally free. It’s a wonderful educational enhancement tool.

FIGHT TO KEEP MAYWOOD INFORMEDI’m noticing a continuum. We’ve just gone from the high school level to the middle school level and now we’re going to the preschool level. Tell me more about the legislation you sponsored to lower the compulsory age in Illinois from seven to five.

Our current compulsory ages right now [the ages at which children are mandated by law to attend school] range from seven to 17. When I found out that the compulsory age started at seven, [I couldn’t believe it]. That was totally unacceptable to me. [There are all kinds of evidence showing that the earlier a child begins learning, the better off she is in the future.]

So I introduced a bill to lower it to five. Through much negotiation and debate (mainly with the Republicans), we came up with a compromise and settled on six. I still believe it should be five years old.

You’ve kind of built a reputation for yourself as a legislator whose niche is education. That’s obviously one of your primary passions. How did this passion come about?

I’m asked this all the time and each time I can’t shoot out an answer immediately. It started for me at home. I used education and recreation to avoid being home; to avoid challenges with my father, [who was pretty strict]. When I started preschool, I loved my teachers. As I grew older, I joined student council and cheer leading and track and volleyball. With my dad, he was so strict that it wasn’t just, ‘Let me see your report card.’ It was, ‘Where’s your honor roll card?’

When I went off to Western Illinois University and pledged a sorority, I met people from all over Chicago. It was a great environment to grow and become a young woman. I began to say, ‘Okay, you have to have a good education to compete with people from all over for jobs.’ When I got my master’s degree, I realized that if you can educate yourself, it gives you so many opportunities. They can never take away your knowledge.

In 1994, I acquired an internship with the Illinois Department of Corrections. I began looking at juvenile crime rates and going to all of these different conferences and meetings hosted by organizations such as the Illinois Association of Park Districts, and I realized that my hometown, Maywood, wasn’t on the table for any of those resources [that were discussed]. We didn’t have those programs, but our crime rate was high. So, that started my passion. I began thinking, ‘There’s no opportunity. All those things that helped shape me are not there.’

In 1997, after I graduated college, I came home to Maywood and ran successfully for trustee. My goal was for youth development. While I was a trustee, I re-did the park, re-did Fred Hampton Pool […] Then when I ran for the Illinois Senate, I served on the education committee. I realized that this was my chance to affect policy. That’s when my passion began to really be cultivated. I learned a lot of things that widened my perspective and made me realize that when our kids do well, our community thrives.

Going back to your college fair. I wanted to talk about the larger issue of the cost of college, which is something the whole country is talking about. What is Springfield doing to reign in those costs and what advice do you have for present and future college students who may feel discouraged about the high cost of higher education in America?

Young people need to be encouraged and stay patient. Everybody’s fancy nowadays. Our young people want things to happen immediately without struggle. But [being fancy] isn’t the struggle. There’s struggle when you’re creating who you are and building your life. I’m 45 years old and I just finished paying off my undergraduate loan. I will be 50 when I pay off my graduate education. But if I didn’t go to school and get that education, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. It’s not easy for everybody and it’s not handed to anyone, so I think we should all have the mindset to earn it.

Secondly, you’ll have to pay your obligations. Young people need to learn to work hard and sacrifice. You’re building yourself and future potential. When I finished school, I didn’t have that great job or big income. They started me as an intern, but these things helped me grow […] And [while I wasn’t making a lot of money], I showed people my leadership skills.

It was when I went back to get my master’s degree when I became really disappointed. I got a 10 percent pay increase after earning my master’s […] To have a master’s and only make $30,000 a year—that’s poor economics. So I’ve lived that, too. But how do you know what you’re not going to have, unless you prepare yourself. You can go educate yourself and struggle and in the meantime, figure it out along the way and prepare yourself for [opportunity]. Failure is not an option.

But, yes, the economics suck right now. A lot of people have degrees and are sending me their resumes and I feel terrible about it. [‘In Springfield],we’ve been trying to create jobs by giving companies tax breaks […] We’ve also passed a lot of legislation to assist small business development and to maintain larger corporations as well. This summer, I had 473 young people, ages 14-24, working part-time and full-time jobs that were administered through ten different nonprofit organizations, such as Vision of Restoration and PLCCA. The program was budgeted for $3 million and lasted six weeks. The young people were paid between $8.25-$9.00 an hour. I wanted to make sure that our young people at this age are beginning a work ethic […] and they could probably help their parents as well. They worked at 70 different business locations. That’s what I’d like to see every summer. That was the second summer in the row we did that. 

And finally, the College Fair. When is it, where is it and what can people expect?

The College Fair is from 12 to 3pm [at 10001 W. Roosevelt Rd., Westchester, IL]. We will have presentations by a range of organizations, such as the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. There will be people who’ll do presentations on financial aid. I have a list of foundations that offer scholarships, which I’ll be providing in every student’s packet. Then we’ll have money management information. There will be experts there talking to parents and kids about staying out of debt, because once they arrive at these universities they get credit cards. PNC Bank will also be onsite to enroll kids in checking accounts, savings and joint debit accounts. VFP

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