Last week, members of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC) held two open houses for students interested in enrolling in the new new Austin Polytechnical Academy, the second school to open in the old Austin High building under the auspices of the CPS-supported Renaissance 2010 restructuring umbrella.

The building currently houses the Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, which opened last year at the site of the former Austin Community Academy High School, 231 N. Pine St. The open house gave sponsors of the school a chance to meet with prospective students and their parents about attending.

“We actually received over 300 applications to the school from Austin residents, which is why we decided to hold this open house so we can meet with the students themselves and discuss their expectations,” said Shawn Taylor, director of communications for the CMRC.

“Each student who applied we encouraged to attend the open houses because we were going to base our enrollment decision on how strongly we felt they wanted to attend the school. We interviewed them. We talked to their parents. We wanted to ensure that we were getting students who were dedicated to working hard and really wanted to be here.”

In those terms, the open houses were sparkling successes since they yielded the recruitment of 60 confirmed students to fill some of the 145 slots available to incoming freshmen.

However, potential problems loom on the horizon. The new school principal, Bill Gerstein, and CMRC Executive Director Dan Swinney proclaimed their ultimate goal to be making Austin Polytechnical a school where children of Austin can attend “because it’s their choice to attend” regardless of attendance-area restrictions imposed on other CPS schools. But it remains to be seen if the school can avoid the same restrictions that have set back so many other schools.

For example, if students reside on Laramie and Jackson, they would be situated both in the Austin attendance area and the Austin community. However, if they live a bit further east or even south, they may be unable to attend because of CPS guidelines. This could prove deflating to students who already have been accepted but live on, say, the wrong side of Madison or Cicero.

“I’m very concerned about those restrictions, no doubt,” said Swinney. “Children perform better at school when they have a strong desire to want to be there-not because they are forced to be there because of where they live. We want students who are dedicated to what we want to accomplish here.”

The goals of the school are to prepare students for potential careers in several areas of manufacturing and engineering, learning about the process of production and running a business.They will also intern and gain experience through school partnerships with P-K Tool and Manufacturing Co. and Ace Industries (two of their 23 partners).

“Historically, African-Americans were often entrapped into taking the hardest, most dangerous, and lowest-paying jobs in industry. Some labor unions-both in the trades as well as in manufacturing-perpetuated discrimination rather than challenged it,” said Swinney. “Manufacturing companies are exclusively owned by whites (according to some statistics, about 99 percent). Why look outside of Austin when in the immediate neighborhood there are students passionate about bringing a revival of manufacturing businesses back to Austin? We are not preparing them for simple trades but careers that will allow them to be employed out of high school and make nearly $17 an hour, or go on to college where they can become engineers and entrepreneurs.”

Students will graduate with NIMS (National Institute for Metalworking Skills) certification. NIMS sets skills standards for the industry, certifies individual skills against those standards, and accredits training programs that meet its quality requirements.

The school evolved out of a meeting that Swinney and other members of the CRMC held with metalworking companies, and the information gathered from those meetings (including the fact that nearly 40 percent of the high level manufacturing workers will retire in 10 years), inspired the CRMC to write a proposal to the Transition Advisory Council, or TAC, a group assembled to consider proposals for small schools that would replace the former Austin High School. Initially declined in 2005, the group wrote out a second proposal which was accepted last November.

Bill Gerstein was hired as the school’s principal in January. Formerly a principal at South Shore High School for seven years, Gerstein was approached by Swinney to oversee the new school. He had worked previously as a consultant for Swinney.

Though Gerstein has never worked in the field of manufacturing, he did run and own a supermarket in the Hyde Park community for over 10 years and feels that he, along with his assistant principal, Bernina Brazier (who was also his assistant at South Shore for three years and who he was able to talk into joining him at the Polytechnical Academy), will be able to create an an open, free-spirited, yet hard-working atmosphere at the school. The fact that he oversaw the restructuring of South Shore High School six years ago when it was converted into four small schools in one building does not hurt either.

Students, generally not fans of school uniforms, will take part in the design of them, true to their espoused philosophy of listening to students’ ideas rather than simply imposing rules and restrictions.

Funding for the project is handled primarily by Chicago Public Schools with help from sponsors Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (which donated $600,000 over three years) and Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (which donated $60,000).

“Sure I feel pressure to succeed,” said Gerstein. “But less for the Renaissance 2010 initiative than for the Austin community itself. I want our school to be a springboard to both encourage manufacturing firms to return to Austin and a motivation to the children who will open themselves up to new opportunities and increased marketability.”