Austin Polytech Credit: Photo by Jason Geil

Less than a year out of high school, 19-year-old Tremaine Hemingway makes $14 an hour wiring fire alarms and other electrical components inside Trump Tower. In four years, he expects to complete his apprenticeship with Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and earn closer to $36 an hour, plus benefits, through his current employer, Huen Electric.

It’s a career trajectory custom-built at Hemingway’s alma mater, ACE Tech, a South Side charter high school focused on the building trades. The school, now in its fifth year, is at the forefront of Chicago’s effort to reinvent vocational education with deeper connections between schools and businesses.

For Hemingway, those ties are paying off. Maurice King, a recruitment officer with Local 134, works closely with the school and talked Hemingway into taking the aptitude test for the apprenticeship program. Michael Hughes, the vice president of Huen and now Hemingway’s boss, serves on the board of directors at ACE.

“From the first day I went to ACE, I was learning at least a little about the trade,” says Hemingway. Noting King’s mentorship, Hemingway adds, “He’s not just trying to get us in, but give us a helping hand.”

In a bid to transform vocational education, CPS and the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development are opening more schools like ACE under Renaissance 2010, its controversial program to close low-performing schools and replace them with innovative, new schools.

Many of these schools focus on specific careers, and because they’re starting from scratch, offer the city a chance to get career education right. That means, according to experts, forging business partnerships that lead to quality internships for students, picking staff with strong industry backgrounds and developing a system to provide students with credentials based on national standards.

In picking industries, CPS is guided by the city’s workforce development planning team, called Project LEADS, for Leading Economic Advancement, Development and Sustainability.(See related story.)

In 2008, CPS sought proposals for new schools in hospitality and tourism (expected to boom should the city win its bid to host the 2016 Olympics); manufacturing; medical and health sciences; transit and logistics; and technology. Four proposals fit the bill and are slated to open this fall and next. (See sidebar.)

Robert Ivry, an expert on career education and senior vice president for the research nonprofit MDRC (formerly known as Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.), says the chief strength of the new schools strategy is its potential for developing curricula that are broad and rigorous enough to prepare students for college yet cohesive and career-focused so that students are prepped for jobs.

Small schools, he adds, provide students with a more personalized environment, where stronger relationships between students and teachers can increase the odds that students seek out and land internships.

Calling small schools and internships “steps in the right direction,” he acknowledges that they cannot overcome poor instruction.

CPS, however, is sold on its strategy.

Opened in 2004, just months after Mayor Richard M. Daley announced Renaissance 2010, ACE Tech is still struggling to arrange high-quality internships: Just 26 of nearly 200 juniors and seniors landed full-time summer internships in 2008. Director of Education Dan Kramer wants to hire an internship coordinator soon. “Someone has to own this,” he says.

The graduation rate for the school’s first crop of seniors was a disappointment as well—55 percent, according to the state. (Kramer says the state’s formula puts ACE at a disadvantage because the school rarely accepts upperclassmen who want to transfer into the school; elsewhere, such transfers can balance out dropouts in the earlier grades.)

But ACE has scored successes, too. It has strong ties to the building trades. For example, Thomas Villanova, president of the Chicago & Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council, sits on its board of directors.

ACE leverages this star power to offer students job-shadowing and presentations by tradesmen and business leaders. Union representatives encourage students like Hemingway to take the aptitude tests needed to land apprenticeships in plumbing, electrical work and other well-paid professions.

Business leaders help to ensure that coursework matches industry needs. For example, ACE developed its own credential in reading blueprints, based on input from building contractors who reported wasting weeks training new hires in the skill.

Jerome Thymes, an architect turned teacher, now teaches a “class within a class” in his architecture course and offers students a chance to take a test in reading blueprints so they can earn the school’s certification.

The unique skills developed at ACE helped senior Edson Hernandez score an internship last summer with prominent architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The three-month job paid $15 an hour, and put Hernandez to work using computer-assisted design to correct blueprints for a tower in Saudi Arabia. Hernandez also credits Thymes with pushing him to perfect the art of making models, a crucial skill for landing a job in the architectural field.

Not every student will develop a strong interest in the trades taught at ACE, Kramer acknowledges. “We’re realistic that 8th-graders may not know what career they’re interested in.” He also stresses that the school is a “college and/or career” program.

Manufacturing losses have piled up on the city’s West Side, with an estimated 20,000 jobs shrinking to around 3,000 since the 1980s. Yet backers of a new small school in Austin believe they are on the road to recovery.

Austin Polytech is the brainchild of Dan Swinney, executive director of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council. Swinney envisions a symbiotic relationship in which schools churn out skilled graduates for manufacturers, who in turn renew the community with a base of good-paying jobs.

Polytech, one of three small schools that replaced the old Austin High School, gained credence in the community when President Barack Obama praised the school for its unique efforts to marry education and community-based economic development. The early endorsement has Swinney’s group chatting up community groups elsewhere in the city to set up similar schools.

Students take one pre-engineering course at each grade level, with juniors clocking hours learning computer-assisted design and sitting for a skills test that could get them an entry-level manufacturing job. The coursework was developed by Project Lead the Way, a New York-based nonprofit that has brought pre-engineering programs to nearly 3,000 schools nationwide.

To date, there are few measures of the school’s effectiveness. Only freshmen and sophomores are enrolled this year. But a majority of students surveyed by the district reported that the school is safe and teachers are supportive.

Industry ties include the Illinois Manufacturers Association and nearly 50 corporate partners. The partnerships have jump-started Polytech’s plans to provide work experience for every junior. Chuck Simpson, who is heading up Polytech’s internship program, says 30 sophomores will pilot it this spring through job-shadowing and Saturday sessions on resume writing and professional expectations.

Swinney has also leveraged a personal connection into an opportunity that has several students thinking big. Through an after-school program, Goose Island Brewery has put 20 students to work designing, marketing and eventually manufacturing their own brand of soda pop.

The project has Teira Sandifer, 15, feeling optimistic about her career goal, electrical engineering. “We’ll have the job for the rest of high school,” she says. “When we leave high school, we can still have it. Austin is getting us ready. They’re giving us jobs that we can just carry on.”

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