While the Chicago Public School Board made recommendations for school closings last Thursday, an unlikely coalition was designing plans for a new type of public school.
A group of educators, community organizers, labor unions and business leaders want to create Chicago’s first vocational high school focused on careers in the high-tech manufacturing industry.
“In the last 20 years, the link between education and manufacturing has been left to rot on the vine,” said Dan Swinney, executive director of the Center for Labor and Community Research, the organization spearheading the effort to create Austin Polytechnical Academy.
The new academy would be housed in Austin Community Academy High School, 231 N. Pine Ave., which was scheduled for closure in 2004 and will shutter its doors next year.
The Austin Business and Entrepreneur Academy was approved by schools CEO Arne Duncan in November 2005 for the Austin campus. The business school, which focuses on business development and leadership skills, will begin accepting students this fall.
Austin Polytech would be the first school devoted entirely to manufacturing, according to Sandra Castillo of the Chicago Public Schools’ Education to Careers department.
The Small Schools Workshop, the Illinois Manufacturers Association, the Tooling Manufacturing Association and the Chicago Teachers Union have offered their support for the project.
“This is not just broad-back manual labor,” Swinney said. “These are companies that can make a lot of money and provide excellent jobs if they can find that talent. And if they don’t, they could easily collapse.”
Austin Polytech’s designers pitched their concept to Austin High School’s Transitional Advisory Council (TAC) in October 2005. The Austin TAC rejected the school citing among other things, a lack of preparation by designers. Duncan will have the final say on which small schools will open at the Austin campus.
Austin Polytech’s designers face other challenges, namely combating the widespread perception that manufacturing is a dead-end industry and the collapse of these companies is imminent.
Indeed, Illinois has lost more than 160,000 manufacturing jobs in the last five years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
But despite the trend of decline, Cook County is still home to 8,000 manufacturing companies that support 400,000 jobs, according to the Center for Labor and Community Research. Each year 10,500-industry jobs are available in the county.
The coalition behind Austin Polytech want to fill those jobs with graduates of their academy, but also provide students with the intellectual foundation for higher education.
“The old-style vocational schools were for kids who weren’t going to college,” said Susan Klonsky, program director of Small Schools Workshop. “You can go anywhere with this [program].”
The proposed school will provide students and their families with choices, Klonsky said.
Hands-on training through internships and summer jobs would be combined with an academic curriculum.
Strong science and math components will prepare students for high-tech jobs in manufacturing, according to Greg Baise, president of the manufacturers’ association, which has supported the project.
“It’s no secret that today’s manufacturing jobs require skills that some schools don’t necessarily put an emphasis on,” he said.