By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
With the support of local political leaders and the trade unions, Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational Career Academy will be going back to its curriculum roots and preparing students for one of the trades. The move comes after years of criticisms and complaints from Chicago citizens that the school system has become oversaturated with sending every student to college even when many have no interest in going that route. Dunbar, along with Simeon and Chicago Vocational, had traditionally been the schools where many Black students could learn a trade and go on to earn a good living. Cuts to programs and changes in CPS philosophy have decimated the trades, but thousands across the city want them back.
“These new programs will give many students options they have not had before and can open up new doors to help address some of the social problems we are seeing in our communities,” said Dunbar Principal Gerald Morrow. “We’re taking a lot of our youth who probably will not attend a college campus, but we’re still going to give them a viable option to be successful in life.”
Monday’s announcement is a nod to Dunbar’s rich history. It opened in 1942 as Dunbar Trade School before CPS changed Dunbar to four-year high school. The Dunbar’s prominent alumni included singer Jennifer Hudson, crooner Lou Rawls, former WGCI radio personality LaDonna Tittle and former CNN Anchor Bernard Shaw.
Two summers ago, the Crusader exclusively shed light on the issue of a dearth of vocational programs in schools when CPS officials attempted to eliminate the last electrical shop program in the city at Simeon Vocational Career Academy. The article prompted Simeon alumni and others from around the city to galvanize and protest the decision by Simeon Principal Dr. Sheldon House and Southwest Network Chief Dr. Elizabeth Kirby. Weeks later the decision was reversed, the program was saved after a collaborative effort between the local electrical union and CPS.
This time, CPS is again teaming up with local labor unions who say they are facing a shortage of workers to fill needs at some construction sites. Donald Finn of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said it has been hard for many Blacks and Hispanics to get into the unions for a variety of reasons. But he said not having prepared or qualified apprentices should never be one of those reasons.
“We in the building trades hope that enough children are interested in this program so we can expand this, not just keep it at Dunbar but move it throughout the city,” Finn said.
Interest in the electrical program at Simeon has remained strong over the past two years, the Crusader has learned. But critics say Simeon and Chicago Vocational are still not operating at their maximum capacity because CPS and the mayor have not put the resources into programs at those schools. Vocational advocates would like to see more programs in automobile repair, carpentry, plumbing, landscaping and other construction trades.
The Construction Trades Campus at Dunbar will offer an intensive two-year option for students from schools throughout the city to attend daily classes that will provide them access to the construction trade industry and the requisite skills to pursue paths such as apprenticeships, post-secondary education, certification programs, or a living-wage job. Creating an option where a student does not have to attend Dunbar as their primary school, is a way CPS officials say they can attract more students to the programs.
“I would be interested in it,” said Jeremiah Holloway who currently attends another CPS school that does not have any vocational training programs. “I would like to learn how to work on cars and trucks. My dad keeps telling me auto mechanics make a lot of money and they always have a job. I was thinking after high school I would just attend an automotive school but I will look into what they are offering and see if it is good for me. But I know it’s a lot of other kids who will want to take some of these new classes they are offering.”
Students who complete the two-year cycle will develop foundational skills in a chosen pathway, authentic workplace experience, a portfolio of work in a specific field and an understanding of specific union application processes, while utilizing applied math and establishing a post-secondary plan. To ensure students are exposed to modern professional practices, CPS is partnering with McCormick Place construction firms and trade unions including the Regional Council of Carpenters, IBEW Local 134, IUOE Local 150, Laborers’ District Council, and Pipefitters’ Local 597.
“Training and apprenticeship programs are at the core of the Labor movement in the United States and here in Chicago,” Jorge Ramirez, President of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “This new program at Dunbar High School will create a pipeline to the middle class for hundreds of CPS students who would not have been exposed to these careers otherwise. Individuals who complete this program will gain life-changing skills that will lead to greater opportunities after graduation, including access to stable, middle class jobs. It is a win-win for our students, our employers and our communities.”
CPS is now accepting applications for the construction programming at Dunbar for the upcoming school year. To learn more about construction trades pathways and to apply, please visit ChicagoBuilds.org.