Activist has grand plan for West Side, but other project falls short

Daniel Swinney and daughter Erica discuss Austin Polytechnical Academy
on the West Side. He founded the school, and she helps run it.
(Alex Garcia, Tribune)

In a part of the West Side long marginalized by City Hall planners, officials have seized on a grand proposal for an "innovation park" that would train and employ impoverished Chicagoans in high-tech factories.

Spearheaded by labor activist Dan Swinney, the proposal represents City Hall's most significant attempt to help develop South Austin, a once-stable African-American community where jobs remain scarce even as other neighborhoods slowly recover from the recession.

"What is happening on the West Side is one of the biggest stories in urban America," said Swinney, 69, whose connections stretch from City Hall to the White House and Wall Street.

But lost in Swinney's promise of economic renewal is the checkered history of a West Side high school that plays a key role in his vision for the innovation park, the Tribune has found. Even as his proposal gains momentum, the school's dismal academic record reveals the gulf between Swinney's ability to generate high-profile support and his effectiveness in carrying out those inspired plans.

Read the full Tribune series: Poverty and Profit

Swinney launched Austin Polytechnical Academy in 2007 as a specialized school that would prepare youths for college and for lucrative careers as skilled workers and managers of cutting-edge factories. A public high school, it receives significant financial support as well as key staff and guidance from a nonprofit organization run by Swinney.

Now, as collaborators in Swinney's innovation park, the school and the nonprofit are sharing a $1.25 million tax increment financing grant to expand the academy's training programs and help create a pipeline of skilled machinists and entrepreneurs for the new venture.

"This funding will allow thousands of Chicago's children to get high-paying jobs in tomorrow's workforce," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said when announcing the grant in November 2012.

Yet despite glowing national and local media coverage of the Austin school, records and interviews show it has fallen far short of its goals.

Nearly seven years into its existence, few of the academy's graduates hold the steady, high-paying manufacturing jobs Swinney promised West Side families, according to Tribune interviews with Swinney and more than a dozen former students and teachers.

And while the academy has made some progress on academic measures since last year, its record includes woeful test scores, substandard graduation rates and frequent turnover among principals, teachers and administrative staff.

Last year, for example, none of the students met an overall college readiness benchmark on the ACT exam, and only about 13 percent of its 11th-graders met or exceeded state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam in mathematics — less than half the citywide average of 33 percent and far below the state average.

The Illinois Manufacturers' Association, an industry trade group that helped launch the academy, severed its ties with Swinney and the school in 2011.

"The truancy rate was very high, and the outcomes were questionable," manufacturing association President Greg Baise told the Tribune. "The management and some of Mr. Swinney's activities were standing in the way. Our concern was Mr. Swinney's lack of follow-through and wanting to go on to other things."

David Corbin Jr., who taught economics and entrepreneurship at the academy from 2008 to 2011, called the school "a weird pipe dream."

"I am the son of an engineer — I loved the idea of the school and I loved the kids," Corbin said. "But the school failed them."

Former student Cuauhtemoc Mendoza said he got a school-sponsored summer job at an Oak Park tool and manufacturing firm during his senior year but was surprised to find himself assigned to the grounds-keeping and maintenance crew.

"Some of the workers told me: You go get yourself an education. Don't go this route," said Mendoza, who graduated in 2012 and is now in college.

In many public statements, Swinney has taken credit for what he calls the school's success. "We started Austin Polytech as a public school designed not just as a vocational training school," he told WBEZ-FM 91.5 in a November 2012 interview. "We provide just excellent college prep education but also a pre-engineering course, a machining course."

But questioned recently about the school's shortfalls in a Tribune interview, Swinney downplayed the role he and his nonprofit play.