New high school to focus on high-tech manufacturing

A new Austin high school, opening this fall, is designed to revitalize the community by preparing students for highly skilled manufacturing jobs as well as drawing manufacturing companies back into the community.

Austin Polytechnical Academy will incorporate hands-on manufacturing experience into the traditional high school curriculum.

Usually kids are groomed to leave the community to go to college and to find jobs, said local industry leader Dan Swinney. "The purpose of this school is to develop and rebuild the Austin community."

The performance school will join Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, a contract school that opened in the fall of 2006. Both schools will share the former Austin Community Academy High School building at 231 N. Pine Ave.

The transition from the original high school to several small schools is part of Renaissance 2010, a plan to replace underperforming elementary and high schools with new, smaller schools.

Austin Polytechnical Academy is the brainchild of Swinney, executive director of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council and the Center for Labor  Community Research.

A 2001 study conducted by the labor and community group showed there are high-skilled, good-paying jobs in Chicago that are going unfilled because there aren't enough qualified applicants, Swinney said.

After he met with Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools to talk about the schools' role in filling the gap, Swinney's organization applied to open a Renaissance 2010 performance school.

Swinney said Austin Polytechnical is unique nationally because it focuses on careers in manufacturing, while simultaneously preparing students for college.

"This is not a traditional vocational school by any means," Swinney said. "These are not menial factory assembly line jobs. We are preparing kids to go into advanced, highly skilled production positions and management."

The curriculum will meet state standards for a high school education coupled with Project Lead the Way, a nationally recognized pre-engineer curriculum, Swinney said.

The program will introduce students to local companies through field trips and guest speakers, said Ray Prendergast, executive director of Jane Addams Resource Corporation. Students will also have the opportunity to earn industry certifications.

"We hope to have paid internships for students in their junior and senior years at local manufacturing companies," Prendergast said.

Austin Polytechnical Academy has partnerships with 24 manufacturing companies that will provide internship opportunities and summer jobs for students.

John Winzeler, president of Winzeler Gear, one of the company partners, said it is important for them to find people that really want to work in manufacturing.

"We are involved in several aspects of the school through mentoring and meeting with students," Winzeler said. "We will be providing job shadowing as well as advising faculty on curriculums."

Dwayne Truss, member of the Austin Transitional Advisory Council, said the new school will offer challenging classes.

"The companies involved are committed to training the kids in the classroom as well as providing hands-on curriculum," Truss said.

Students are accepted to Austin Polytechnical on a first-come, first-serve basis. No test scores are required to apply, said Bill Gerstein, principal of Austin Polytechnical Academy. The first class has already been recruited with 145 ninth-graders slated to attend in the fall, he said.

The school targets students in the predominantly African-American Austin community.

"Any Renaissance 2010 school is to serve the parents and students of that neighborhood," said CPS spokesman Malon Edwards. "It is there to address the issues of that neighborhood and to serve the residents of the Austin community."

Historically, Austin has been home to many manufacturing companies that have since closed or downsized. By creating the Polytechnical school in the community, leaders hope to educate, motivate and encourage local students to succeed in this industry and be prepared for careers in their own community.

Swinney said his hope is that the school will attract manufacturing companies to move back into the community because there will be highly skilled employees as a result of the new school curriculum.

Students will graduate from Austin Polytechnical Academy with a high school diploma, work experience and industry credentials in manufacturing.

"We will be preparing kids for college and high-skilled careers in the manufacturing industry," Gerstein said.