What's in Store for the First Graduates of Austin Polytechnical Academy

Before becoming the United States' Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan served as the chief of Chicago Public Schools for a 7-year period. Among his initiatives during that time was Renaissance 2010, a plan to rebuild 100 city schools to give students and parents a number of positive educational options. The West Side's career-focused Austin Polytechnical Academy is one of the schools shepherded by Duncan, and its first class of seniors just graduated. What awaits them?

A School Like No Other

As high schools go, Austin Polytechnical Academy is pretty much one-of-a-kind. It's Chicago's only school focused on high-skill industrial manufacturing, which allows students to intern with major businesses, earn certificates and take advanced engineering classes at a very young age. It's also the only high school in Illinois with a National Institute for Metalworking Skills-accredited machine shop.

If one of Secretary Duncan's goals with Renaissance 2010 was to offer greater choice and diversity to Chicago's public school children, it seems he succeeded with Austin. Yet things haven't been all roses with the school, which, like many others in the CPS, has faced struggling academic results and tumultuous teacher and staff turnover, some of which even resulted in student-organized protests.

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Moving On

But regardless of that turmoil, as of June 12 Austin Polytechnical's first crop of seniors left the school behind, graduating and entering the world with various plans. Education experts are now watching this group of students carefully; their post-high school success will, for many onlookers, be the determinant of the educational quality provided by Austin.

The New York Times, in association with the Chicago News Cooperative, recently published a report on a few of the school's seniors that journalists had tracked throughout their final year at Austin. Out of a graduating class of 92, at least the two students followed by the media seem to have been afforded some opportunities they might not have otherwise had. The Times reports on Stran'Ja Burge, a top-10 student who plans to obtain a degree in engineering from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Considering the barriers many CPS students face in even going to college, let alone one out of state, that seems impressive.

Perhaps even more of a success story for Austin, though, is Marquiese Booker, a student who spent his senior year working at a fast-food chicken restaurant but who, right before graduation, was offered a quality control job created just for him at Chicago's Laystrom Manufacturing. Booker had interned at Laystrom the summer before, likely making the necessary connections and showing the right work ethic to secure full-time employment directly out of high school.

A Valuable Experiment?

Of course, Booker and Burge are but two students out of almost 100, and their good fortune, while a very positive thing, does not alone guarantee the success of Austin Polytechnical Academy. On the other hand, a high school that opens up opportunities to attend out-of-state college or find immediate full-time employment has done their students a great service, and many of the impassioned learners at Austin surely hope that service continues for a long time.

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