Trish O’Shaughnessy: Peoria mom puts public school students on path to success
By Robert Holly, CU-CitizenAccess.org / Photo by Darrell Hoemann
By Robert Holly, CU-CitizenAccess.org / Photo by Darrell Hoemann
Trish O’Shaughnessy first started helping in Peoria public schools because of her two boys, the oldest in middle school and the youngest in fourth grade.
She eagerly volunteered in classrooms and enthusiastically helped staff school events. She worked her way up to be recognized as a leader of her local parent-teacher organization.
Soon, she was appointed the career-tech advocate and coordinator of the Peoria Public School Foundation’s Horizons Club, a pilot middle-school career-readiness program that started at the beginning of last school year.
“You start working with your own kids, and that’s why you go into the schools,” said O’Shaughnessy, a former speech-team standout and graduate of Illinois State University. “Then, you get there, and you realize it’s not about your child – it’s about all these children and how to help them.”
There are more than two dozen schools in Peoria School District 150, the district where O’Shaughnessy spends most of her time. That total includes at least seven middle schools.
Overall, Illinois State Board of Education data show that schools in the district have performed slightly less than average in terms of achievement testing.
While O’Shaughnessy’s two sons inspired her to first get actively involved in the Peoria public school system, it was the struggling students who led her to fully commit herself to the Horizons Club coordinator position.
“Every student in this district I’ve worked with is so bright and so inquisitive,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I’m just amazed by the things they know and what they want to learn.’
In 2013, the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress Report found that the district was not making adequate yearly progress in either reading or mathematics.
Last year, Peoria Public School District 150 had a high-school graduation rate of 71 percent, lower than the state graduation rate of 83 percent. The year before, the district had a graduation rate of only 69 percent, compared to the state rate of 82 percent.
Reversing the negative
As coordinator, O’Shaughnessy helps reverse some of the negative statistics through the Horizons Club.
She connects promising and struggling students alike to potential careers by introducing them to notable central Illinois professionals. For example, through the club and O’Shaughnessy’s efforts as coordinator, about 25 students in three schools have mingled with police chiefs and business owners, learning what it takes to be successful in the process.
Olivia Streeter, a middle-school student who joined the Horizons Club this past year, said the club has helped her work on goal-setting techniques. She also said it helped her learn the value of teamwork.
“Horizons Club has made me feel very confident about what I want to do,” Streeter said.
Nearly two dozen professionals spoke at Horizons Club meetings throughout the program’s pilot year.
Chris Monroe – a Peoria entrepreneur who owns a handful of businesses, including a coffee shop, a medical supply company and a boutique that provides clothes designed for individuals diagnosed with breast cancer – was one of the professionals who became actively involved.
“When I spoke to the kids, one of the things I shared with them mostly was how to take advantage of the opportunities that comes,” said Monroe, who focused on the concepts of stewardship, teamwork, integrity and passion.
“I think it’s important for the business community to interact with the kids, especially in the public schools,” he said.
Career-readiness program prepares for expansion
During the Horizons Club’s inaugural year, it reached about 75 students, most handpicked by principals.
During this upcoming school year, the club will reach hundreds of students in five different middle schools.
“We will be impacting significantly more students this year, in the number of about 400 students,” said Cindy Morris, who manages the Peoria Public Schools Foundation. “Our foundation board believed that this career and college readiness was a focus that we should be involved in.”
Rolling Acres, Calvin Coolidge, Von Steuben, Thomas Jefferson and Glen Oak middle schools will all be a part of the program.
The expansion of Horizons Club, which also hosts annual career fairs in addition to its weekly gatherings, was a result of a successful first year, Morris said.
“We do surveys with the students,” she said. “We talk to their families, the schools, and they all just say it’s been incredible.’
“The program has been very rewarding for me,” Streeter said.
Moving forward, Morris said Horizons Club will keep track of its students to monitor the program’s impact.
Morris met O’Shaughnessy about six years ago through parent-teacher organization commitments. She said O’Shaughnessy has been “the perfect person” to lead the program because of her compassion and passion for students.
“She looks at every student in the Horizons Club as her own Family,” Morris said.
Overall, Illinois education data show that about three out of every five of the state’s schools meet or exceed achievement testing “cut scores,” or the thresholds between different performance levels.
Illinois is one of 43 states that have adopted the somewhat controversial Common Core Standards, which seek to provide clear-cut benchmarks for academic progress.
However, the state’s overall high-school graduation rate has decreased from 87 percent in 2009 to 83 percent in 2013.
Recently, Illinois education officials have also widely used career-readiness programs in attempt to raise state education statistics. Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, who Governor Pat Quinn appointed as his point person on education, has made such programs a cornerstone of her work.
“Nationally, there is a trend to help students younger and younger make some choices about their careers,” O’Shaughnessy said.
This story is funded in part by a $10,000 grant from WNET that WILL-TV received in partnership with WTVP-TV in Peoria and CU-Citizen Access, a community journalism project of the University of Illinois College of Media. These stories are airing in September between programs this month as WILL-TV gears up for a day of broadcasting about the dropout crisis, American Graduate Day, from 10 am to 5 pm on Saturday, Sept. 27. You can learn more online at will.illinois.edu/americangraduateday.