peoriaTwenty-five Illinois communities have been named All-America Cities since the program began in 1949, including the bi-state community of Quad Cities, Illinois/Iowa, which won the prestigious award in 2012 and was named as a finalist in 2017. In 2012, the Quad Cities brought together representatives from 18 local organizations to create an action plan to improve grade-level reading in the bi-state community, which encompasses eight school districts.

The 2012 effort used a combination of funding, community collaboration and volunteer engagement to create the Quad Cities Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The coalition set mutual goals and targets across systems and sectors. They worked with several school districts to establish a community-wide data warehouse to house data from all eight school districts, helping to track progress and ensure accountability.

Recognizing the need to get the community involved and engaged, the Quad City coalition held Community Conversation focus groups with residents to gain a better understanding of school readiness in the community. A majority of local parents did not think of school readiness, beyond buying supplies the weekend before kindergarten starts. The general opinion seemed to be that preparing the children for their education was the school’s job, not the parents’.

To address this awareness gap, the Campaign created a brochure for parents on school readiness skills and suggested activities to help preschoolers attain those skills. The brochure has helped to strengthen awareness about school readiness in the Quad Cities for parents and educators. Parents are now more familiar with the role they play in their child’s early education. Between 2012 and 2016, the campaign was able to improve school readiness for children from low-income families from 74.3% to 80.4%.

To further strengthen its messaging and mobilizing efforts in the community, the Quad City coalition held editorial boards with two local newspapers on the importance of school attendance. School superintendents, community agency heads and local business leaders participated in these editorial boards, which resulted in the local media helping frame the issue of chronic absenteeism and emphasizing the importance of school attendance.

Another Illinois community, Peoria, is a four-time winner of the All-America City awards (1953, 1966, 1989 and 2013). In 2013, Peoria won the award for successful community engagement efforts to address downtown revitalization, healthcare delivery and youth educational success.  Peoria’s 2013 bid for the award was spearheaded by the Young Professionals Organization of Greater Peoria. Through this effort, businesses, labor unions and local government officials in the city came together as part of a “Build the Block” movement – a 14-year downtown revitalization effort that resulted in the construction of the Peoria Riverfront Museum (PRM) and Caterpillar Visitors Center (CVC).

Getting the community involved in the downtown revitalization effort was significant not only in gathering ideas and developing plans for the downtown, but in getting some of the required funding for the project. In April 2009, at the height of the recession, the voters of Peoria County spoke clearly when they voted to increase local sales taxes by a quarter-percent in order to build the PRM. The $140 million project was a defining moment in community-building. At the museum, galleries entertain and educate museum-goers of all ages. In addition, other highlights include The Dome Planetarium and Giant Screen Theater. The CVC brings to life the history, tractors and people that make up Caterpillar — the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment.

Beyond the downtown revitalization efforts, Peoria was also recognized for its efforts to support the education of young people and deliver a skilled workforce by increasing the number of high school graduates who completed a college or vocational program. With funding from individuals and businesses, the community created Peoria Promise - a foundation to provide students with college scholarships. Finally, the city was recognized for its OSF Saint Francis Milestone Project, which sought to expand healthcare by preparing for advancements in technology, medicine and research.

Join the list of innovative All-America Cities, like Peoria and the Quad Cities, and apply for the 2018 Award today! Applications are now available for all communities to apply for the 2018 All-America City Awards, which will spotlight efforts to strengthen inclusive engagement practices that promote equity and bring all voices to the table to help solve our country’s most pressing and complex issues.