AFT president Randi Weingarten took time on Jan. 17 to visit staff, students and partners at Chicago high schools that are tailored to a basic truth: Students are more apt to stay engaged in learning when they draw the connection between their studies and the successful careers and lives they dream of having down the road.
Three career-themed schools welcomed the AFT president through their doors. Austin Polytechnical Academy is a five-year old public high school that takes an economic priority—strengthening the nation's competitive advantage in a global economy based on advanced manufacturing—and translates that national goal into personal opportunities for students. The Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy is a two-year-old charter high school that seeks to inspire and prepare Chicago youth for success in another growing sector, the healthcare fields. Its sister school, the Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy, features studies that allow students to play meaningful roles in community revitalization and other work that shapes the life of the neighborhood. All of these schools serve low-income neighborhoods and draw many students who either are at risk of dropping out or are returning to studies after having left school before graduating. The Chicago Teachers Union represents staff at Austin Polytechnical and helped to design the school, while the AFT Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff represents teachers at the two Instituto schools.
At Austin Polytechnical, Weingarten got a chance to whet her whistle—grinding a precise, down-to-the-micrometer metal cast of a trainer's whistle using some of the most advanced fabrication equipment around. It was an introduction into computer-aided design, and Weingarten controlled the work through the machine's touch-screen pad under the watchful eye of Thomas O'Brien (pictured at left, with Weingarten), who teaches engineering and machining at the school.
Moments before the visit, O'Brien was circulating among students who were putting Autodesk's computer-aided design software through its tracks, and the teacher spoke about how engaging these offerings can be for students. "When they're doing good work, we don't hear anything" inside the room except questions and comments for the instructors, he said.
Weingarten also met with several manufacturers on Chicago's West Side who have contributed time, talents and resources to strengthening Austin Polytech. She congratulated the school-community partnership members for putting their dedication into action—in ways that place the winds of a changing global economy at the backs of students and neighborhoods.
"Advanced manufacturing is a key pillar to growing our economy," the AFT president observed, and Austin Polytech gets that. "You see the connection between education and the economy, and kids see the connection between education and work."
For students like Desiree Wordlaw, Austin Polytech also has provided a strong connection with options for her adult life. The senior was all smiles on the day of the visit. Just hours before, she learned that she had earned her fourth advanced industry credential, which will put her in an excellent position not only for a career out of high school but also for continuing her education. Recently she learned she has been accepted at the University of Iowa for next year.
If there is a secret to her success, the student admits a little sheepishly, it's that she can be pretty competitive—something that really kicked in when she saw so many guys in her classes at Austin Polytech. "Being a girl, it became, 'anything you can do, I can do better.'"
Weingarten later toured the two charter schools, established by the Instituto del Progreso Latino. They are among the 14 charter schools in the city where teachers and staff are represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. At the Justice and Leadership Academy, Weingarten visited with teachers and students working in teams on a class project to help revitalize the neighborhood by beautifying an empty lot. Students used a range of math, language and other skills to hone their work; once completed, the students' best option will become the action plan for actually transforming the open space. At the Health Sciences Career Academy, the AFT president observed classes in both science and the humanities. She even got an on-the-fly check of her pulse by 10th-grader Elizabeth Cruz (pictured at right), who is preparing for a career in healthcare.
The charter schools are a stone's throw from each other, located in the heart of one of the city's largest Latino communities, and both buildings focus on preserving and reclaiming educational opportunities for older students at risk of leaving school without a diploma. Several students gave poignant voice to the worthiness of that cause when they spoke at a presentation to end the AFT visit.
"My life has changed greatly, and a lot of it is because of this school," said Marisa Melton (pictured at left), a senior who aspires to a career in psychology. Melton is raising a daughter with Down syndrome while she earns her diploma, and she hopes one day to make a positive difference in the lives of other young adults, much as the charter school has changed hers. "I want to succeed, and I want to give back to this school."
These types of schools should be prized, Weingarten said. They are the types of buildings where students have "the opportunity not simply to dream their dreams but to achieve them" through hard work and desire.
Juan Salgado, president and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino, joined Weingarten during the school tours and at the presentation; he thanked her and the union for their constructive engagement in these schools and lauded the two campuses for building a supportive, caring environment that is helping children achieve life goals.
The visit wrapped up with an AFT presentation on Share My Lesson, an exciting tool that allows educators to share their best lessons online. Teachers at the Chicago charter schools learned how Share My Lesson's "by teachers, for teachers" approach makes it easy for educators to search for lessons in an online format that is easy to use and efficient. The results of Share My Lesson searches are organized by the value and utility of each lesson—as rated by colleagues around the country. Also, lessons can be filtered to include only those that reflect the Common Core State Standards. And to foster collegiality, Share My Lesson also offers tools such as the ability for users to "follow" a particular teacher-contributor whose contributions are consistently strong.
Share My Lesson, Weingarten told the gathering of charter school teachers, shows that the AFT recognizes how teachers from both traditional and nontraditional settings are united in their right to "the best tools they need to actually do the work they're expected to do." [Mike Rose/photos by Simone Bonde/video by Brett Sherman and Matthew Jones]
January 22, 2013