As a student growing up in rural Illinois, alum Jim O’Connor (Mississippi Delta ’95) noticed issues of inequity from an early age. Now, as Project Director of Advance Illinois, he’s doing something about them.
January 23, 2019
For as long as he can remember, Jim O’Connor (Mississippi Delta ’95) has been passionate about equity. Growing up on a farm in Wilmington, Illinois, a small town an hour south of Chicago, he became keenly aware that not all students were receiving an equal education. The high school in the community that neighbored his had things his school didn’t: nine baseball fields, an indoor track, an auditorium. And though many students would have concluded that the world was simply unfair, Jim decided to do some research. He pulled annual reports for the school districts and spent hours comparing numbers. “It all came down to the funding system,” he says. “97 cents on the dollar for the school district came from the town’s nuclear power plant. This didn’t seem fair to me.”
As a junior in college, Jim wrote an editorial on the subject for a local newspaper, The Joliet Herald-News. Though he was grateful for the opportunity to share his research and opinions, nothing came of the article. “But now, as I look back on that article, you’ve got this fired up guy in a rural community not connected to anybody else, who didn’t know anything about the legislative process and how things actually worked, and now fast forward, there is a place for someone like that,” Jim says.
That place is Advance Illinois, an independent policy and advocacy organization where Jim has worked for the past eight years. Advance Illinois is committed to a healthy public education system that sets students up for success, and focuses on developing data-informed policies, building coalitions, and elevating the education narrative. Jim came to his role after several years as a teacher, something that as a biology major would not have been possible without the corps, and six as a principal.
“As a principal I remember thinking ‘This is a great school, I would send my kids here. But I was also thinking, ‘We’re only serving 320 kids. How can I make a bigger impact?’”
In his role of Project Director, Jim has most recently been taking a lead on educator quality policy. “As I think back to my own experience, the quality of the staff is what it’s all about,” Jim shares. “It’s about hiring great people and developing them. It’s really critical to school success.” His staff are reviewing policies around what it takes to become a teacher in Illinois, and taking a closer look at teacher and principal preparation programs. “Right now, this is a data free environment,” he says, and so Advance Illinois is working with schools and programs throughout the state to gather data on where alumni of these programs work and what their classroom and school outcomes are. “This work will help programs improve, it will help candidates select programs, and it will help hiring managers looking for preparation programs to partner with.”
When reflecting on his eight years at Advance Illinois, one of Jim’s proudest moments circles back to the issue that bothered him as a student growing up in Wilmington. In 2017, Advance Illinois was part of a coalition that pushed for legislation that would forever change Illinois’ school funding formula. “Illinois used to have the most inequitable funding formula in the country. But since the implementation of the new legislation, we’ve seen the number of schools operating with less than 60% of the resources they need drop from 183 to 14,” he says.
This sense of collective impact is something he also feels keenly as a Teach For America alum. “It means a lot to be a part of the Teach For America community,” he shares. “Everyone wants to be tied to something bigger than themselves, and Teach for America is that to me. It’s completely changed the trajectory of my life.”