Sunday, September 30, 2007

New Directions for School Reform in Chicago—Austin Polytechnical Academy

Austin Polytech – the result of an unlikely partnership of labor, business, community, education and government leaders gathered in the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council--has important implications for progressive education reform nationally.

Austin Polytech is a new public high school that’s connected to a unique and powerful vision of community renewal and economic development. This school is at the foundation of a new strategy in Chicago to dramatically shift the paradigm of economic development in a direction that can actually end poverty, challenge racism and restore our communities.

The school reform movement can generally be divided into four trends:

--Those whose focus is principally on the quality of jobs—wages, benefits, and conditions of work—for educators and administrators within the system in one way or another;

--Those who seek greater community and parent involvement and control of the educational system;

--Those preparing students for the best jobs and careers they think are possible in the current declining society; and

--Those with a deep and legitimate critique of the economic and social trends in our society and who want to insure that the next generation includes critical thinkers, effective advocates for change at all levels, and those who will refuse to become passive cogs in the wheel of society.

Each has their strengths… and all are required, but not sufficient.

What they have in common is that none go far enough in promoting or being linked to an economic development strategy that addresses the root causes of persistent poverty today. They lack an effective connection between education and a positive vision of economic development for our communities. Austin Polytech is an attempt to bridge that gap, and to promote a model for school reform that is truly transformative for our students and their communities. Austin Polytech is committed to challenging the dominant economic development paradigm by offering a positive alternative: a High Road vision of community economic development.

Austin Polytech will, of course, provide students with the tools they need, individually, to escape poverty including a connection to meaningful work and college, as well as become effective advocates and citizens. But more importantly it will give students the critical skills and tools needed to challenge and change the current economic paradigm that keeps so many of our communities in poverty.


The Center for Labor and Community Research (CLCR) is a non-profit research and consulting firm focused on ending poverty through innovative approaches to economic development.

We work with a broad range of stakeholders – from labor, to communities, to business to government – because the kind of economic development we’re talking about depends on a strong social partnership to make it work—and to make it truly accountable to our core constituencies: labor and communities. We measure success by the degree to which economic development responds to social needs.

We entered the field of education seven years ago because our research showed us that a world-class, local education system was fundamental to the retention and further development of our local industrial economy.

Contrary to what you read in the papers, manufacturing remains the most important sector of the economy. Directly and indirectly, manufacturing is the largest single source and driver of employment. Manufacturing wages are the highest of all sectors, offers career-pathways out of poverty and into the middle class and has a more positive ripple-effect on the whole economy than any other industry. (See Manufacturing and Illinois’ Future at

We first documented the challenges facing our workforce development system in 2001. In partnership with the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), we completed a major study of the public training and education system in relation to manufacturing in the Chicago area and published Creating a Manufacturing Career Path System in Cook County.[1]

In preparing the report, we had the opportunity to visit and learn about world “best practice” with a visit to Germany and Denmark. We were introduced to new and innovative approaches to the way education is done, such as small learning communities by the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago. We became familiar with the excellent work of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. And we met others within and outside the educational system--all providing important perspectives for the recommendations of the report.

What we uncovered about our own workforce development system shocked us. Despite the overwhelming importance of manufacturing to the local economy (it’s the single most important sector of Illinois’ economy), we basically found a non-system that served neither companies nor residents.

While the social and economic changes of the last 30 years have created enormous poverty in the face of an increasingly wealthy elite, they have also created the space, imperative, and potential partnerships that could not only allow us to stem the hemorrhage of jobs, but also redirect our economy onto a path of economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable development; a transformative agenda premised on the real ability to end poverty—not just help poor people.

This kind of system-change has to start with our public education system. We need leaders in education that recognize this opportunity and become an integral part of the movement to change the paradigm of development and to inspire and educate the next generation of leaders from our society—particularly young people who come from the communities that have been devastated the most—to build a positive alternative in the social, political and economic arenas.

A New Direction and New Private/Public Partnerships

The 2001 report mentioned earlier contained, in addition to its critique, a positive, 20-year vision of change for public education including the creation of small schools linked to the manufacturing sector, the transformation of our community college system, the creation of a workforce development system based on nationally-recognized skill standards in manufacturing and a method for certification that was broadly recognized, with a focus on career paths within the various sectors in manufacturing.

The Illinois Manufacturer’s Association (IMA) representing some 4,000 manufacturing companies in Illinois immediately took interest in the recommendation. While a minority of IMA members are companies large enough to search the world to solve their workforce challenges, more than 85% of the IMA members are small, locally-owned, privately held companies. These companies face a loss of 40% of their workforce in the next 10 years. They don’t have the capacity to solve their workforce challenges alone. The CFL/CLCR report spoke directly to their interests—candidly describing a failed education system, but offering positive solutions going forward.

As a result of the report, the IMA hired CLCR to complete a more focused study on Illinois manufacturing and its challenges. The report, The State of Illinois Manufacturing[2] successfully challenged the IMA to initiate a High Road partnership with labor, government, and community around a common vision of Illinois “Leading the Race to the Top in Global High Performance Manufacturing.”

We recognized that in the global economy we will continue to lose many low skilled jobs to developing countries like China, Mexico and India. (And of course the people in China, Mexico and India have a right to develop their own economies and societies as well.) We should do what we can to save as many jobs as we can, but most of all we should concentrate on competing in the high value-added section of manufacturing by making complex products. This is the kind of production that creates a truly innovative society on many levels. This is where Illinois and our country have a competitive advantage. These are the products we can charge the most for, pay the highest wages, provide good benefits, and still make a solid return. And this is the kind of production that requires a world-class education system, as well as a world-class social, physical, and technological infrastructure. Mutual investment and mutual responsibility by both the public and private sectors makes absolute business and social sense. This kind of High Road/High Performance development strategy actually makes ending poverty possible; and a environmentally, economically and socially sustainable society a reality.

This initiative took hold in Chicago with the creation of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC) in July, 2005—a federation of the top business, labor, governmental, community and education organizations and agencies. The CMRC is engaged in several projects related to education including an assessment of our community college system in light of best international practice as well as a research and public education initiative to promote the use of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills standards by area companies and schools. But most exciting is the creation of Austin Polytechnical Academy (APA)—a new public high school in the African American community on Chicago’s West Side.

Austin Polytech Leading the Race to the Top!

APA will be a small performance school (not charter) that will open in Sept. 2007 with 145 freshmen with the approval of the Austin TAC—the community advisory board established in the Renaissance 2010 process. APA will add a class each year to reach a size of 550 to 600 students. It will be one of three small schools that will occupy the four-story building that was once Austin High School. Its teachers will be represented by the Chicago Teachers Union. Though open to any student in Chicago, APA will focus on recruiting students from the Austin neighborhood.

There are a few reasons we chose Austin to lead off Chicago’s manufacturing renaissance. Austin is an African American community on the far West Side. Once a stable working class community, its residents have witnessed a dramatic loss of manufacturing companies and jobs over the last 25 years. The result is 30% poverty rates, with less than two-thirds of residents over 25 completing high school. A high percentage of families also have a connection to the criminal justice system as well as other reflections of the pathology of poverty that haunts America’s urban communities.

Austin also has a number of assets that make success here likely, despite the odds: there is a culture of work and manufacturing in the community, with generations of residents that historically have participated in Chicago’s industrial working class. There’s a long tradition of community and labor activism including a determined effort to retain Brach Candy Company over a number of years. And the community is in close proximity to rail lines and key transportation routes.

Austin Polytech will be a unique place for teaching and learning. First and foremost, APA will provide a safe, nurturing, and stimulating educational environment for all students no matter what their final career and life choice; no matter what their ability or disability or special need. We have a great team to start the school with an experienced principal and Assistant Principal, a core of teachers, and broad team of advisors including educators, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Small Schools Workshop, manufacturers, a representative of the local community college system, and the community itself.

Direct Links to Local Manufacturers: APA is linked generally to careers in modern manufacturing and principally to the metal working sector. Traditional vocational education reserved a limited role for average people in the production process and was essentially a programmatic extension of discriminatory practices in society at large.

In contrast, APA will promote career paths in manufacturing that include skilled production and technical positions, management, and ownership of companies. It is internationalist in its orientation. Development in the United States and other first world societies can no longer come at the expense of the rest of the world. APA’s curriculum also recognizes that the opportunity lies in being competitive in key sectors in the global economy by understanding best international practice in both production as well as education and striving to meet and exceed those models. APA already has established a learning partnership with a secondary school in Bologna, Italy--Aldini Valerani--in the innovative Emilia-Romagna Region.

APA will prepare students for college and advanced degrees, as well as for employment immediately after graduation. The historic line between vocational and college-prep is blurred. Both are indispensable for modern manufacturing and the future of our society. APA’s curriculum incorporates Project Lead the Way, a nationally recognized pre-engineering program. In addition, each student will graduate with at least two credentials from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills and perhaps as many as eight, qualifying them for immediate employment in skilled positions out of high school, if that’s what they choose.

We have 23 mostly small manufacturing companies who have signed on as Austin Polytech Partners and we expect at least 30 by the time school opens. These High Road companies will provide general support for the school; work-exposure for freshmen students; internships and summer jobs for students starting in their sophomore year; and prospects for full time employment upon graduation. Companies as well as teachers, community, parents, and students will be represented on the governing body of the school. A key position will be a full-time industry coordinator as intermediary between companies and the school.

APA will have an “Evening Center,” not only for after school programs and clubs for its students, but for parents and adult residents of the entire community. The adult program will start with a community technology center teaching basic computer literacy, but with a range of other program, from family wellness to job search and preparation resources.

More specifically, APA is explicitly anchored in a unique development agenda for the local community that is consistent with the vision of the CMRC as applied on the community level. The focus is on creating a mixed economy that includes a strong and vibrant high performance manufacturing sector, instead of simply abandoning the community to big-box retailers like Wal-Mart that pay low wages and/or gentrification of the housing market.

In the last month, close to 300 students have signed up for the 140 open positions. There is a buzz in the industrial press. There is coverage in the local media for a school that won’t open for 8 months. And as Shonta Arrington—a long-term Austin resident and member of the education advisory council (TAC) said at the hearing before Chicago’s Board of Education, “APA is the first thing in many years that has given me hope for Austin. Now our children can be leaders in the global economy rather than its victims.”

Implications for Educators and the School Reform Movement

There are at least five main themes that need to become part of a viable and dynamic movement for school reform in Chicago and around the country.

First--A Direct Link to a Contemporary Development Vision: Education requires a profound link to a comprehensive economic development vision that will rebuild and further develop our communities. Many of the current educational efforts accept the current development model as inevitable. Education in the inner city is geared to preparing kids to go to college to leave their community and secure jobs in the public and service sector in an economy they expect to be dominated by service and retail. There’s a weak connection – if any – with the local productive sector. This is ironic, considering that local manufacturing depends on a strong linkage with public education for its survival.

Those educators and school reformers who are critical of the broader economic and social system see education as the means to create critical thinkers who will oppose what’s wrong in society and resist being “cogs in its wheels.” They will become the teachers, the advocates, the organizers, the informed who will oppose the decline in our country, principally through influencing the decisions being made at all levels within government and politics as well as civil society.

We think that this kind of education is essential but not sufficient to truly transform our society. It’s not enough to simply oppose what is wrong. First, you must offer a positive alternative—a competitive vision of a different paradigm that’s consistent with our values and commitment to social justice and sustainable development. Such a model of development exists. Second, it’s essential to contend in the market for this vision and not remain only focused on influencing government and state policy.

Particularly the progressive political community has viewed the market place or the economy as only the terrain for those who believe in Low Road capitalism—and to be involved in business or to be part of “corporate America” is by definition corruption. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, we must compete for our policies in government and the state, but also in the market-- in companies and in production. Our students need to have both the technical as well as political, organizational, managerial, and financial skills to realize this High Road model as we contend with and defeat the Low Road model that’s at the source of so much destruction. We know from experience that offering this kind of comprehensive alternative provides inspiration and meaning to people—young and old, and makes risk and hard work worth it…including staying in school.

It doesn’t mean that all students must become a particular kind of employee or leader, but a framework for education shaped by such a vision is essential. To the degree that an alternative vision of development is missing, initiatives at school reform—such as those that have flourished in Chicago--are compromised and can lead to an educational experience and educational structure that re-enforces the traditional paradigm of this society despite intentions to the contrary.

Second--Link Education and Work: It’s key to explicitly link education and work in a positive way for all students. The notion that linking education to work somehow diminishes the experience or compromises critical thinking and broader vision reflects a dated understanding of the character of work—particularly that in high performance companies and organizations. We seek the right balance in education in the use of national standards and certification, as well as promoting broad education and critical thinking—as both are now required in the development of our society. We completely share the critique of the No Child Left Behind policy and think that having an entire system geared to learning how to take a test rather than broader education is horrifically destructive.

Third--Create Meaningful Career Paths for Students: Our objective is to insure that public education is at least successful in creating career paths and provides strong material incentives for students and a future of interesting work that can be an adequate incentive to stay in school and work hard in securing an education. These career paths should at least be in:

--In all aspects of production—technical, management, and ownership;

--In all aspects of social, economic, and political life: critical thinkers, union organizers and leaders, poets, and artists; community organizers and advocates; managers and civil servants; and political leaders; and

--Those that contribute to building a society that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable and restorative

Fourth--A Partnership with the High Road Business Community: We feel that relationships with the emerging High Road sections of the business community are essential for the development of production and the creation of true social and economic wealth for our society.

It is essential for educational leaders and reformers to overcome a simplistic “anti-corporate” stance; to be effective in distinguishing those in the private as well as public sector who have become strategic and tactical allies, as well as opponents; and to develop appropriate policies and actions for both.

There are major companies that are using public education and its institutions in ways that are exploitive and destructive for students and schools. Huge beverage and food companies are marketing and distributing unhealthy foods for students and reinforcing unhealthy habits through lunchrooms and vending machines. For some companies, every aspect of education is seen as one more marketing opportunity with little concern about the actual value of what is being marketed. They need to be stopped.

On the other hand, there are thousands of companies in Chicago like Hudson Precision Products, PK Tool, DeCardy Diecasting, and Winzeler Gear that are anchors for the local economy, the site for meaningful careers with good paying jobs and benefits, who are eager to contribute in many different ways to an all sided High Road educational experience, and are full strategic partners for Austin Polytech.

A contemporary movement for school reform must bring in sections of the business community as strategic partners as well as the labor movement—and particularly the teacher’s unions. This social partnership of labor, business, government, community, and education is fundamental to the broader development agenda and coalition and is certainly central to education and school reform.

In Chicago, we at CLCR found some irony in the fact that some progressive school reformers have embraced non-union charter schools, while the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association has explicitly embraced a partnership with the Chicago Teacher’s Union in the creation of Austin Polytech.

By taking up the issues and challenges of school reform in coalitions like the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, we can not only bring a new vision of the economy to the table but also a powerful, non-partisan coalition that will increasingly gain the strength to insure fundamental and progressive changes in the education system on all levels.

Fifth--Preparing the Next Generation for Leadership: At the heart of what Austin Polytech is all about is an introduction of a way of thinking that encourages and allows students—particularly from poor and working class communities—to assume leadership positions in our society in all aspects of production and wealth creation, as well as in services, science, retail, technology, government, art, and politics.

Social change is a very complex process involving all sectors of society, yet a clear priority of bringing these perspectives and teaching the essential skills and knowledge to our young people, is a high priority. For us, Austin Polytech is the first step in what we expect to become a major component in the movement for school reform and a new paradigm for economic development and change in the next ten years.


We are both excited by the opportunity as well as sobered by the challenge. Yet for us, there is no other choice at this time. While others wring their hands and watch the slide of communities like Austin to the bottom continue, the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council is mobilizing the talents of the residents and students in one of Chicago’s poorest communities to demonstrate the transforming power of a vibrant manufacturing economy,.

For more information:

Center for Labor and Community Research:
Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council:
Austin Polytechnical Academy:

Dan Swinney
Executive Director
Center for Labor and Community Research
and the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council
773 278 5418, ext. 13

[1] On CLCR’s web site:
[2] Available on CLCR’s web site: