?DHS Contract Mgr Karrie Rueter
Annual Grant $  $3,500,000
Evaluator Name
& Contact Info

Peter Mulhall, Ph.D.

Nancy Flowers, B.S.
Center for Prevention Research and Development
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Annual Eval $ $300,000
Funding Source US Department of Education
Eval Period 10/1/05 - 9/30/11

Program Summary

The Illinois Steps for Attaining Higher Education through Academic Development (AHEAD) provides early intervention educational services and post-secondary educational scholarships for middle and high school students. This initiative has been implemented across the state of Illinois in twenty-one communities. The fundamental purpose of Illinois Steps AHEAD is to increase the number of low-income students that attend and succeed in college. Program components include; early intervention educational services, creative and engaging academic support for students, career exploration programs, college preparation services, scholarships, increased parent involvement, and increased collaboration with local schools.

The Illinois Steps AHEAD program works with students in middle and high school to improve their achievement, build study skills, assist in course selection, and increase their knowledge of admission requirements for college education. A State-level advisory board oversees the initiative and includes leaders from state agencies and organizations that are integral to academic and school reform, higher education, human services, professional development, and evaluation.

Process Evaluation Findings

FY08 was a transitional year for Illinois Steps AHEAD as the first cohort of youth participants who have been in the program for three years, started high school. Illinois Steps AHEAD administration and providers began working with high school principals and started rendering services to high school students. The process of tracking youth into numerous high schools in each community and effectively retaining students in the program proved challenging. To assist providers, access to IDHS Community Support Service Consultants (CSSC) was increased.

Illinois Steps AHEAD provided services to 1,914 youth in FY08, with 1,270 participating in activities on an ongoing and regular basis throughout the year. The core components of the program (tutoring, mentoring, and college advisement) were delivered by all providers. Students received an average of 32.1 hours of tutoring, an average of 10.6 hours of mentoring, and an average of 13.6 hours of counseling/advising throughout the year. The lower number of regular attendees to the program (1,270) is the result of the greater demands on older students' after-school time due to increased extra-curricular activity options.

The Illinois Steps AHEAD administration worked with providers to establish letters of agreement between extra-curricular activity organizers and the program which allows such participation to occur simultaneously with participation in the Illinois Steps AHEAD program. Administration has also worked with schools to allow the delivery of Illinois Steps AHEAD services during the school day if feasible, thus further lessening the competition for students after school hours.

Engaging parents in the Illinois Steps AHEAD program remains challenging. Attendance data for approximately 340 parents was collected. It shows that these parents received an average of 3.9 hours of workshops on college and an average of 2.5 hours of counseling and/or advising. On the 2009 parent survey, 36% of the parents reported they had never attended any Illinois Steps AHEAD function.

Data on the implementation of the Illinois Steps AHEAD program was gathered during site visits, focus groups, and interviews in 2008. While providers remain focused on the core program components (tutoring, mentoring, college advisement), they implemented them with great variability across providers. The college advisement component was "home grown" at all providers and thus variability in how it is delivered is significant. Additionally, some providers have high levels of community connections and therefore bring these resources, partnerships, and volunteers to the program. Other implementation areas that vary by provider include: staffing, relationship with local schools, summer program offerings, and the process of developing student individual learning plans. This variability in implementation has implications for the consistency of the Illinois Steps AHEAD program.

Submission of attendance and demographic data, as well as access to academic data for purposes of the evaluation varies across Illinois Steps AHEAD providers. Attempts to improve data procedures and practices among providers have included: refining eCornerstone data fields, distributing instructions on eCornerstone entry, monitoring eCornerstone entry, and assisting providers in establishing relationships with local school systems to gain access to academic data.

Outcome Evaluation Findings

Academic Performance

Illinois Steps AHEAD providers work regularly with youth to improve their schoolwork and academic performance. As part of this process, providers are instructed to develop and maintain individual learning plans (ILP) for each youth. Data shows that 82% of all Illinois Steps AHEAD youth have an ILP. Key outcome findings to date include:

  • When youth were asked in the 2009 survey about their academic performance and study habits since participating in the Illinois Steps AHEAD program, 50% said their grades in school this year were better than last year.
  • In addition, more than 85% of all youth reported numerous positive outcomes from their participation in the program, including: ability to set goals, complete homework more often, improve academic skills, and preparation for college.
  • An examination of report card grades showed no change among Illinois Steps AHEAD youth from 2007 to 2008. Seventy-five (75%) percent of youth had no failing grades in core academic subjects during major grading periods in 2008 (it was 74% in 2007).

Educational Expectations

One of the core goals of the Illinois Steps AHEAD program is to raise the educational expectations and aspirations of youth. Some of the key findings to date in this area include:

  • Seventy-six (76%) percent of Illinois Steps AHEAD youth reported in 2009 that they expect to attain a 4-year college degree. When youth were asked how important it was to them to get a good paying job after finishing school, 80% indicated it was 'very important' (up from 76% in 2007).
  • Ninety-one (91%) percent of youth in 2009 'strongly agree' or 'agree' that since attending the program, they are more interested in going to college.
  • Additionally, 85% of youth 'strongly agree' or 'agree' that since attending the program they are more prepared to attend college.

Knowledge About College

In addition to academic support services, Illinois Steps AHEAD also provides youth with numerous opportunities to learn about college admission requirements, financial aid, how to apply for college, and what the college experience will entail. On average, Illinois Steps AHEAD youth participated in 12.8 hours of college tours in FY08. Some of the key findings in this area include:

  • Youth survey data show promising results about the increase in youth knowledge aboutcollege. Youth were more knowledgeable about 4-year colleges in 2009 (96%) than they were in 2007 (89%).
  • Youth were also more familiar with the tuition costs in Illinois as well (58% in 2009; 29% in 2007). Also, youth who attend the Illinois Steps AHEAD program more often were more likely to increase their knowledge about college (e.g., 4-year colleges, tuition costs, scholarships). Program services about college were also provided to parents. Fifty-seven (57%) percent of the parents surveyed in 2009 reported that Illinois Steps AHEAD staff have talked to them about college entrance requirements (up from 38% in 2007). As a result, parent knowledge about college has increased.
  • While 43% of parents were 'familiar' with high school graduation requirements in 2007, it increased to 52% in 2009.

Illinois Steps AHEAD (GEAR UP)

Evaluation Design Peter Mulhall, Ph.D. and Nancy Flowers

Indicators / Measures Tools / Instruments / Data Sources Other Deliverables / Comments
  • Increased number of students who enroll in and complete college prep courses (e.g., prealgebra, Algebra 1, etc.)
  • Improved students academic performance (grades, achievement test scores)
  • Improved school attendance
  • Increased rate of grade level promotion
  • Increased number of students who take college entrance exams
  • Increased number of students who enroll in post-secondary education
  • Increased perceptions of access to higher education
  • Improved parent expectations and aspirations related to college
  • Increased knowledge/understanding of college financial options
  • Increased number of completed applications for college financial aid
  • Increased number of college visits
  • Increased number of students who report having an adult to talk to about establishing educational goals, planning for college and/or career
  • Increased educational expectations and aspirations related to college attendance, success, and graduation
  • Improved students' expectations for a productive future
  • Increased parent involvement in their child's education
  • Improved parent educational expectations and aspirations related to college attendance, success, and graduation
  • Improved teacher expectations for academic performance of low-income students
  • Increased contact between schools and families related to college preparation and career planning.
  • Increased type and number of strategies that teachers use to promote educational success with "at-risk" students
Student surveys
  • Parent surveys
  • Program staff surveys
  • Academic records (already available through the Teen REACH evaluation)
  • Achievement test scores
  • Program attendance records
  • Site visits and focus group discussions with program staff, collaborative partners, and the students and families served by Illinois Steps Ahead
Training and support is being provided to statewide project staff and local program staff as they engage in the ongoing evaluation process.