Last fall, Austin Polytechnical Academy opened its doors to its inaugural class of 125 students and embarked on a fascinating experiment. Housed in a school building once known for violence and high dropout rates, the Academy aimed not only to re-imagine public ...
Last fall, Austin Polytechnical Academy opened its doors to its inaugural class of 125 students and embarked on a fascinating experiment. Housed in a school building once known for violence and high dropout rates, the Academy aimed not only to re-imagine public education and revitalize Chicago’s poverty-stricken Austin neighborhood, it also hope to save the city’s stagnant industrial sector by training a new generation of skilled laborers. The school had a lot to live up to.
For Dan Swinney, longtime labor organizer and champion of the project, it was all part of “exploiting the anarchy that exists in our society.” Swinney pushed the Academy as an answer to the crisis of education in Chicago’s schools, the crisis of poverty in Chicago’s streets, and the crisis of outsourcing in Chicago’s factories. In his role as executive director of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, he formed a coalition of educators, factory owners, and labor unions. With added support from Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 program, a city initiative to open innovative new schools, Austin Polytechnical became a reality.
Swinney described the mission of the school to me recently by recounting a trip he made to a Chicago-based factory, PK Tools. During his visit, Swinney -- himself a former steelworker -- discovered that the owner was looking to hire a mold designer to do complicated manufacturing work. The position had been vacated months earlier, but had received no qualified applicants. It paid fifty dollars an hour.
“Fifty bucks an hour plus benefits,” Swinney emphasized during an interview in his office. “That’s not even talking overtime. I mean [at the factory] you start out making six figures, and twenty blocks away you have people who have a totally failed school system, in this failed community, literally dying.”
Getting a student from a high-risk background trained and into that high-paying job is, in a nut shell, the mission of Austin Polytechnical. From there, Swinney contends, all other things will follow.
“If you have a strong manufacturing economy, people have wages and a discretionary income,” he told me. “You can build a strong retail economy. You can have a strong service sector.”
In this way, training the youth of Austin could also help bring the neighborhood, which has a 30 percent poverty rate, out from under the shadow of economic stagnation. Swinney (pictured below) is quick to point out that community advancement is written into the charter of the school.
“I believe kids should be given a sense of value in the commitment to building their community. [Austin Polytechnical] is not a vocational school. It’s about training the next generation of leaders in manufacturing career paths […] Management and ownership are explicit parts of our vision. It’s committed in its bylaws to the development of the community.”
As the school approaches its one year anniversary, that promise appears to be bearing fruit. But school administrators admit there is still a long way to go.
“I tell Dan all the time you can’t just give a kid a lecture [on community involvement] one day and say this is what we’re all about,” Academy principal Bill Gerstein told me at Austin’s Duke Ellington Elementary, the Academy’s temporary summer location. (Their permanent facility is being expanded for next year’s incoming class. It will eventually house 500 students.)
“It’s got to be embodied by everybody. It’s not just words. It’s how you do what you do.”
To organize the curriculum around community advancement, Austin Polytechnical is building bridges with the neighborhood. For instance, summer school students are publishing Teen Talk, a newspaper on issues facing local teens. Others are joining forces with the local chapter of the “Green Team” to help build community gardens. Gerstein is in talks with Chicago Public Schools to allow the students to plant a garden in a vacant, CPS-owned lot adjacent to the school. The Academy has also opened up its auditorium space to neighborhood groups and is planning to host workforce development classes for adults in the area.
“Just the fact that we’re here [in Ellington Elementary] this summer indicates that some good things are happening.” Gerstein (pictured below) points out. “Elementary schools in the past have not wanted to work with the high schools, particularly high schools that used to be bad […] No school is an island, and our success is partially based on our ability to create a network of schools that work together in this neighborhood.”
One of the challenges faced by both Gerstein and Swinney was how to convince people that manufacturing, a sector many have given up for dead, is still a viable career path for America’s youth.
Swinney watched decades ago as his old shop floor went quiet and today concedes that some manufacturing jobs are gone for good.
“Right now [overseas] competition has competitive advantage among unskilled workers. […] Where we still have an advantage, and even where a lot of jobs are coming back, is in making complex products. Making complex products requires an educated workforce and skilled workforce as well as a much more dynamic management and more deeply committed and creative owners,” he says. “Making complex products is the point were you have the highest convergence of public and private interests.”
Even though the jobs do exist, Gerstein admits that the industry has a stigma to overcome.
“A lot of people when they think of manufacturing they think of steel mills and they think of assembly line work,” says Gerstein. These perceptions made Austin Polytechnical a hard sell to some local parents.
But the school's industry partners demonstrate the difference between their work -- the high-end manufacturing of complex tools -- and traditional factory labor.
John Winzler, CEO of Winzler Tools, describes his Chicago factory as more a laboratory than an assembly line. He says jobs at his company are “a unique combination of … critical thinking and engineering skills,” and he worries about an impending employment crisis as his workforce ages.
“We’ve got probably two levels of our workforce,” Winzler says. “There are some in the company like myself that are over 65. Then our next group is the 40-somethings. The 40-somethings hold the skills and the knowledge and all the creative thinking comes from that group. And then the next group doesn’t exist yet. The distance between our department head and number two person in an area is just way too far.”
Winzler says that others in the Illinois Manufacturers Association are having similar problems.
“The only thing they’re lacking is people,” he told me. “What keeps them from buying more machinery and growing is that they can’t find talented people to run and program the equipment.”
Theoretically, Austin Polytechnical will help alleviate this problem.
Gerstein (pictured above) says the school boasted a high attendance rate during its first year and a great number of students remain on schedule to graduate. He says both metrics are especially important as many students’ high school success is determined in their freshman year.
Yet Gerstein feels some “tension” about how many of his students are actually becoming interested in manufacturing.
“Students who chose our school are choosing it for a lot of factors,” he says. “The safety is a big issue; quality of the teachers is a big issue. Location in the community where they live is a big thing. The career focus, we want to make that a much bigger reason why students chose our school. I think it’s a reason, but not as big as we’d like it right now.”
Still, Gerstein says, the school can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the city’s best in terms of preparing its students for any type of career.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves. We want kids who get the 99th percentile in their standardized test, and we want them to come to our school as opposed to Whitney [Young, a well-known magnet high school] because we think we can provide them what they need.”
In the conversations I had with kids in one summer school class, the students’ interest in manufacturing was wholly evident.
Latrice Tynes, 14, told me that her goal in life was “to work in the field of manufacturing. Probably like a design engineer or work with software or something like that.” For Tynes, Austin Polytechnical is a perfect fit.
“It’s different because we get to personally go to different factories and learn how they work and how they manage their factories and stuff,” she said. “A lot of the factories come to our school and talk to us. A lot of people who own factories they come looking for us to get jobs and stuff. Other schools don’t do that with the kids.”
Even among the students who were unsure exactly what they wanted to do later in life -- they are in ninth grade, after all -- many seemed enthusiastic about the Academy’s heavy focus on engineering.
“I just like the idea of taking things apart and seeing how you can look at it from different views and just put it back together,” said 14-year-old Latoya Fondren. “You can look at like an average flower pot. But here at this school it’s not like an average flower pot for us. We can take it apart and look at it from different views.”
Reports like these should be music to the ears of all those in education and industry who worked to make Austin Polytechnical a reality. But the early success has brought its own challenges. Dan Swinney is now working with CPS to open three more schools in the city based on the Austin Polytechnical model. As Bill Gerstein notes, they must move fast.
“We’ve talked a lot about the need to go to scale pretty quickly. We need to be successful here, but we also need to start all these other schools -- not just for manufacturing, but for other sectors. Otherwise the American advantage is going to be blown, and we’re going to outsource a lot of these skills to people from other countries.”
So school organizers plan to move forward quickly. Doing it for the good of the students, the neighborhood and, they hope, the country.