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Merging College and Career Prep on Chicago's West Side

There's no difference between the college track and the career track at Chicago's Austin Polytechnical Academy high school.

Can today's kids learn calculus and real world job skills? They will if they're enrolled at Austin Polytechnical Academy on Chicago's West Side. At the 381-student STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) focused campus, the college and career track are one and the same.

Founded in 2007 by Dan Swinney, the chairman of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, Austin is the only Chicago Public Schools high school teaching the basics like English and social studies, and requiring students to take three to four years of pre-engineering courses.

In their junior year, students also to take courses from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills and earn a certificate that, upon graduation, makes them immediately employable by Chicago-area manufacturing companies.

Erica Swinney, the Director of Careers and Community Programs at Austin tells PBS NewsHour that the school’s students are set up to excel even if they choose a college trajectory.

“When our students graduate, they’ll have their diploma,” she says. Swinney believes Austin's unique combination of rigorous academics and real skills can enhance college applications.

Edward Gordon, a strategic workforce consultant and author of Winning the Global Talent Showdown applauds Austin's approach. Gordon says the 21st century economy doesn’t need every student to go into banking or communications since there are three million job openings in America, and the majority of them are in STEM fields.

Indeed, the Bureau of Labor’s statistics show that from July 2009 to July 2010 manufacturing jobs openings increased 118 percent. However, because there aren’t enough applicants with the skills these positions require, only 13 percent of these positions were filled.

According to Gordon, most of these positions don’t require a four-year college degree to get started. Instead, a two-year degree, trade certificates, and skill-building apprenticeships can set students up for success.

Eighteen year-old Stran’ja Burge say she appreciates that Austin has, “a different approach to high school.” She'll be among the first class of Austin seniors graduating in spring 2011.

photo (cc) via Flickr user opacity

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