Three nonprofits that had been operating inside Austin College & Career Academy, 231 N. Pine, have received notices from Chicago Public Schools that they should vacate the premises in a move that could impact hundreds of low-income West Side residents who depend on their services.
Representatives with Manufacturing Renaissance, the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC for short) and Friends of the Children all confirmed their organizations are no longer operating at the high school after receiving notification from CPS in the last several months. Austin Weekly News reached out to CPS last week for comment, but the district has yet to respond.
In 2017, JARC partnered with Austin Coming Together, Manufacturing Renaissance and CPS to launch a replica of its flagship Careers in Manufacturing Programs initiative at the Austin high school.
Through the program, JARC provides “manufacturing job training and support services for low-income adults from the Austin neighborhood and surrounding communities,” according to its website.
“This expansion to the Austin neighborhood will improve access to high quality skills training to community residents with barriers to employment in an underserved community,” Guy Loudon, JARC’s president, stated at the time.
During the program, eligible participants can earn free training leading to industry credentials in areas like computerized machining and welding, in addition to financial coaching, transportation assistance and tutors in fundamentals like math and reading. The organization also places participants who complete the program into full-time manufacturing jobs.
During an interview earlier this month, David Robinson, the communications head for Manufacturing Renaissance, said the organization has operated its flagship program, Manufacturing Connect, at the Austin high school since 2007. It also has locations at Bowen High School on the South Side and Prosser High School in Belmont-Cragin.
The Manufacturing Connect program allows participants to earn nationally-recognized industry credentials in metalworking and teaches them the hard and soft skills necessary for landing manufacturing jobs. The organization also places participants in jobs with manufacturing companies.
Robinson said the organization helps train and place skilled employees for roughly 130 manufacturing companies. He said around 150 young people were served by the program this year while the Manufacturing Connect initiative has served more than 600 young people in 12 years.
“One-hundred and twenty of those young people are working and making a living as we speak,” Robinson said.
Friends of the Children had been using office space at Austin High School. A spokesperson for the organization declined to comment.
Robinson declined to go into specifics about why CPS is requiring Manufacturing Renaissance to leave the school. Both Johnson and Robinson said their organizations have been trying to reach out to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration for answers.
Robinson said Manufacturing Renaissance has largely moved its programming out of the school. The move has left up to 80 young people who were participants in Manufacturing Connect wondering what they’ll do now that the program is gone, he said.
Johnson said her organization received a letter from CPS on Aug. 23 detailing a variety of issues, including the fact that JARC may have been training their Careers in Manufacturing participants on machines that were paid with federal funding that stipulates the use of the machines are restricted to CPS high school students.
Johnson said CPS alerted JARC that the participants utilizing the machines would be in violation with JARC’s contract with the Illinois State Board of Education. She said JARC offered to inventory the machines and identify potential waivers that can be requested to ensure that they would be in compliance with the law, among other possible resolutions.
“There’s no willingness on the part of CPS to do [any of that],” Johnson said.
She said CPS also told JARC that the district would not enter into a lease with the organization until it complied with new background check requirements that would have disqualified many of the people JARC serves, such as individuals with marijuana-related offenses and Class X felonies.
On Oct. 2, CPS CEO Janice Jackson sent out an email to parents indicating that the district was in the process of overhauling its policies related to background checks in the wake of a series of reports about sexual misconduct by CPS employees.
“In spring 2018, after reporters from the Chicago Tribune identified serious concerns regarding over a decade’s worth of sexual misconduct cases in our schools, we began an unprecedented effort to overhaul the policies, procedures, and resources in place to prevent abuse and help students heal,” Jackson stated.
“Central to this effort was an independent, comprehensive assessment conducted by former Illinois Executive Inspector General and Assistant U.S. Attorney Maggie Hickey, who was contracted to help us fully understand the changes that needed to be made and hold us accountable for acting on those goals.”
Hickey recommended that CPS improve its “centralized background check process to ensure all adults who come in contact with our students have completed a detailed background check and committing to re-checking backgrounds on a rolling basis.”
Johnson said her organization does not allow individuals with sexual offenses into the program but works with individuals with criminal histories who would not pass CPS background checks. She added that the school district’s reaction to the reports of sexual misconduct has “hurt people who have blemishes on their background unrelated to any kind of sexual offense.”
Johnson also said there “are best practices out there for people with criminal backgrounds that CPS is not open to reviewing. We’d like to enter into a lease with them, but we can’t say no to roughly half the number of people who apply to our programs.”