Proposed Austin school would train kids for high-tech jobs

  • Medill News Service
  • January 31, 2006 @ 7:05 AM
A group of educators, community organizers, labor unions and business leaders hopes to create Chicago's first vocational high school focused on careers in the high-tech manufacturing industry.

"In the last 20 years, the link between education and manufacturing has been left to rot on the vine," said Dan Swinney, executive director of the Center for Labor and Community Research, the organization spearheading the effort to create Austin Polytechnical Academy.

There are public schools with some manufacturing components integrated into their curricula, Austin Polytech would be the first school devoted entirely to manufacturing, according to Sandra Castillo of the Chicago Public Schools' Education to Careers department,.

The Small Schools Workshop, the Illinois Manufacturers Association, the Tooling Manufacturing Association and the Chicago Teachers Union have offered their support for the project.

"This is not just broad-back manual labor," Swinney said. "These are companies that can make a lot of money and provide excellent jobs if they can find that talent. And if they don't, they could easily collapse."

Austin Polytech's designers face a significant challenge to pitching their concept: combating the widespread perception that manufacturing is a dead-end industry and the collapse of these companies is imminent.

Indeed, Illinois has lost more than 160,000 manufacturing jobs in the last five years, according to payroll surveys published by the U.S. Department of Labor.

But despite the trend of decline, Cook County is still home to 8,000 manufacturing companies that support 400,000 jobs, according to research done by the Center for Labor and Community Research. Each year 10,500 industry jobs are available in the county.

The coalition behind Austin Polytech wants to fill those jobs with graduates of their academy, but also provide students with the intellectual foundation for higher education.

"The old-style vocational schools were for kids who weren't going to college," said Susan Klonsky, program director of Small Schools Workshop. "You can go anywhere with this [program]."

The proposed school will provide students and their families with choices, Klonsky said.

Hands-on training through internships and summer jobs would be combined with an academic curriculum.

"It's no secret that today's manufacturing jobs require skills that some schools don't necessarily put an emphasis on," said Greg Baise, president of the manufacturers' association, which has supported the project.

Strong science and math components will prepare students for high-tech jobs in manufacturing, according to Baise.

"In the Chicago area we have literally thousands of small manufacturing companies that can be competitive globally and that can offer jobs that often start at $40,000 a year," Swinney said. "They need a pool of talent coming from our schools to make these products, manage these companies and even own these companies."

The new academy would be housed in Austin Community Academy High School, 231 N. Pine Ave., which was scheduled for closure in 2004 and will shutter its doors next year.