Chaseley Walker seemed like any other high school student walking the halls at Austin Polytechnical Academy.

She went to English and Spanish classes, listening intently; hauling her book bag around like most students do. But Walker’s not enrolled at the West Side high school.

Walker was part of a delegation of 11 Australian Aboriginals in town to learn about the school’s manufacturing-focused curriculum. Aboriginals are indigenous people living in Australia long before English settlement in the late 1700s.

Austin Polytech, 231 N. Pine, has partnered with several companies to help educate students in finding future manufacturing jobs.  The group’s seven-day trip included a tour of the school, its manufacturing partners, and to do some sightseeing.

Walker, 16, the only teen in the group, shadowed APA students to experience the rigors of attending a school focused on manufacturing. A student at Mossman High School in Australia, Walker described the experience as “positive.” And she couldn’t wait to get her hands on some of the tool casting machines located in some of the classrooms. This was a departure from her school’s routine of reading, writing and arithmetic.

“The programs in engineering are way better,” said Walker, who helps her grandfather, Bennett Walker, in his auto shop. The elder Walker was also among the delegation.

“Coming over here was actually a good experience, because you get to see how people from other countries learn, and you can see how different it is compared to how you learn,” Chaseley Walker said.

The experience has already got her thinking about possible career paths. She wants to be a diesel mechanic or work in the mines-Australia’s biggest industry-driving or repairing trucks.

The delegation was invited to Chicago by Dan Swinney, executive director of Center for Labor and Community Research (CLCR) after visiting Australia and discussing Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council’s work with Aboriginal leaders. One of the council’s goals is to advance manufacturing in Chicago.

The group’s goal in visiting APA was to see whether they should open a similar school in Australia. They mainly looked at best practices in creating partnerships and identifying skill sets relevant to specific industries, and how all that might be applied in their communities.

“The vision is to have students leave school with skills that can get them into well-paying jobs with a future career,” said Justin Mullaly of the Australian Education Union. Based on what he has seen during the tour, Mullaly considers that a realistic goal.

Educational advances for Aboriginal youth, the group said, is necessary to reverse years of marginalization by the Australian government. Aboriginals, for example, are prohibited by the government from buying a house or owning a business. Aboriginals weren’t even recognized as people by the government until 1967. Before then, Aboriginals were not classified as people, but were counted as animals and plants in that country’s census.

Those racial and social barriers, said Paul Briggs, founding chairman of the First Nations Credit Union, “created social and economic chaos in Aboriginals’ families and Aboriginals’ lives.” He said they’re still dealing with that fallout.

Improving educational opportunities for young Aboriginals, he added, is key to sustaining Aboriginal culture, improving their quality of life, and having “social economic inclusion.

The delegation also wanted to draw inspiration from APA on how it engages students educationally. Although an ocean apart, Chicago Public Schools, as well as schools in Australia, struggle with retaining students, especially indigenous kids.

“Education is not getting through to young people,” said delegation member Djaran Whyman, believing that an APA-style program in his country could correct that.

“New programs like these that takes a different angle is innovative and exciting,” he said.

Peter Botsman, of the Indigenous Stock Exchange, noted that traditional job tracks of young Aboriginals are better in America than Australia. Most students, he said, take vocational courses after high school, but here-it’s a part of a school’s curriculum.

“That is why is it is important to be here, to see how they can learn from other young people,” Botsman said.

Aussies, Austin come together

  • Austin Coming Together will host a community discussion with the Australian delegation from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday Oct. 13, at El Palais Bu-Che, 4628 W. Washington. The discussion will include a performance by delegation member Bennett Walker, along with local Chicago talent.