As more than 400,000 Chicago Public Schools students headed back to school last week, Austin Polytechnical Academy had enough empty seats to fill two freshman classrooms.

“Our school is having a difficult time this year attracting freshmen,” said Principal Bill Gerstein, who has about 50 open slots in his freshman class this school year. APA, he says, can house 375 students.

The school’s recruitment woes stems from several factors, Gerstein noted, including a perception that the Austin community does not have a neighborhood high school. A local community group is peddling that idea to pressure Chicago Public Schools to build a new high school on the former Brach Candy factory site at 401 N. Cicero. That property was sold to a private developer last year, and the site is currently zoned for industrial use and city has long opposed rezoning it for other purposes. But as a result of the misconception, some parents are sending their children to schools outside their community.

“The Westside Health Authority is … trying to tell Austin residents that there are not schools in Austin for their children, which I found strange since we are sitting here,” Gerstein said of APA, one of three small schools housed in the former Austin High School, 231 N. Pine.

The Academy has been open since 2007.

“We want Austin kids, and they are telling people there is no place in Austin,” said Gerstein. “It is frustrating. We are a school that serves neighborhood children.”

Van Gooden, a community organizer with the Westside Health Authority, contends that there is no high school where Austin students are “entitled” to go to. He explained that the three schools currently housed in the old Austin High School building either have selective enrollment or accept a limited number of students.

Austin Polytech, Gooden argues, only has slots for about 100 students when the Austin community graduated, 400 eighth graders the previous school year. The concern, he explained, is that Austin kids don’t have a place to go to receive a good education.

APA, however, did a full-court press to recruit students to the career-oriented school, which focuses on technology and engineering. Staff visited every elementary school in Austin, participated in high school fairs, and even passed out flyers in a neighborhood grocery store. But Gerstein acknowledged that his school is still haunted by its predecessor’s reputation.

CPS closed the former Austin High School in 2003 because of low test scores. APA was the second of the three schools to open – the academy is a performance school under Renaissance 2010, a city mandate to replace chronically-failing schools with charter schools.

“You talk to most people in Austin who are familiar with Austin High School and many will tell you the old Austin was bad,” said Gerstein. “They don’t know there were changes here.”

He also believes many parents and students are unfamiliar with CPS’s process of enrolling in high school. Gerstein said a lot of parents don’t realize they have a choice where they can send their freshman. When the old Austin High school closed, its attendance boundaries were expanding into areas with high schools such Marshall, Manley, Orr, Douglass and Clemente. Depending on where the students lived, they are assigned to a neighborhood high school.

But parents can opt not to send their child to that neighborhood school if the child is accepted elsewhere. Gerstein insists there needs to be more education about the process of going from eighth to ninth grade.

“A lot of parents are in the dark about this whole transition thing. We want to serve kids in this area who want to come to us, but we think that there are too many barriers in the way,” he said. “It should be done in a different way so that kids chose the school that they really want to go to.”

Austin resident Yulander Ford counts herself lucky that her daughter, Tasheka, got into APA. Ford said her daughter was late in filling out the paperwork to get into her first choice of high school, Al Raby School in West Garfield Park. But Ford did not want her daughter to attend the school CPS automatically assigned her. Ford said she was concerned about the school’s reputation and the distance her daughter would have to walk to get there.

Ford saw a flyer about APA, visited the school and talked with Gerstein. The school even assisted in getting her daughter “released” from Al Raby. Ford liked what she saw.

“I liked the idea of getting (students) ready for jobs,” she said of Austin Polytech.

While APA does have an engineering focus, Gerstein warns against typecasting the school. He said the school prepares students to fulfill any career goals. But he noted that President Obama has stressed that education also focus on highly-skilled jobs in information technology, manufacturing or green jobs.

“This is the only school Obama talked about when he ran for president,” Gerstein said. “[He] wants high school and colleges to prepare students for these highly-skilled jobs.”