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.
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.
"We aren't responsible for the academics of the school," said Swinney, who founded the academy, personally selected its first principal and has described himself as the architect of its curriculum. "We don't hire and supervise. There is no connection between the school's problems and my responsibility as a leader."
In the last seven years, school officials say, more than 150 students earned basic metalworking credentials in the academy's machine shop, and a handful have gone on to college or jobs in manufacturing.
"They graduate and know how to read a mechanical drawing and use measuring instruments like micrometers and calipers," said William Dudek, who hired three academy graduates as machine operators in his family-owned metal-stamping plant, where they start at $11 or $12 per hour.
"Everything I learned in high school, I use in my daily job," said 2011 graduate Stranja Burge, who has been working as a machine operator for a Northwest Side packaging company.
But other students said they felt used as props as Swinney touted the school.
"He goes around the world talking about this school. But it felt like they were dumbing us down and not teaching us to become good students," said Cheyenne Sims, 20, valedictorian of the 2012 graduating class.
Swinney told the Tribune the school is still in its formative stages and is making progress after a rocky start. "We totally underestimated how complex the issue of education is," he said, urging reporters to revisit the facility in five years. "Please hold us accountable to see those numbers go up. ... We are creating a pathway out of poverty."
Bill Vogel, a top Swinney aide and former die-casting factory owner who came out of retirement to coordinate the school's industrial training program, also argued for more time. "Where we stand now is terrible," Vogel said.
City Hall and the Chicago Public Schools declined to comment for this story.
A University of Wisconsin at Madison history student who devoted himself to the 1960s civil rights movement, Swinney began working in factories and organizing workers in the 1970s. In 1982 he founded the nonprofit now called Manufacturing Renaissance to combat the shutdown of Chicago-area factories.
That nonprofit, which has taken in roughly $5.6 million in the last five years, most of it from other foundations, paid Swinney $144,000 in 2012. His daughter Erica Swinney, 37, draws a salary of about $70,000. She acts as spokeswoman for the Austin school while also trying to bolster student enrollment and cement ties with manufacturers. Swinney's son Brett, 32, also works for the nonprofit and helps promote the school by shooting videos and photographs.
Opened in 2007 with about 140 freshmen, Austin Polytechnical Academy is one of three small public schools occupying the massive stone-and-brick building that was once Austin High School. Swinney once projected the academy would reach a size of 550 to 600 students by 2011, but fewer than 200 students are currently enrolled.
Many youths attend simply because it is the closest school to their homes, not because they have an interest in the advanced manufacturing curriculum, according to Tribune interviews and two lengthy assessments of the school, one by Swinney's nonprofit and the second by a former teacher pursuing an advanced degree. A large percentage of new freshmen test at the third- or fourth-grade level in reading and math, and some cannot read at all, records and interviews show.
Tavon Sanders, 20, said he transferred out of the academy after his sophomore English class took an entire quarter to read "Seedfolks," a 69-page illustrated children's novel generally recommended for grades four through eight. "They were trying so hard to make that school look better than what it is. The classes were below par," Sanders said.
"Dan Swinney can make things happen, but then his attention goes elsewhere," said Joan Wrenn, CEO of Hudson Precision Products Co., who helped Swinney start the academy and is currently working with a group Swinney formed to address the school's problems.
"Running a school takes more attention than setting one up — more, not less," she added. "But Dan quickly moves to another project — that's his nature."
Manufacturing Renaissance is now pressing forward with plans for the innovation park, which envisions a large campus of high-tech manufacturing companies where students from the academy and City Colleges of Chicago would have the opportunity to train and work.
Taking inspiration from the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto, Calif., and a similar development in North Carolina, the proposed park "will attract advanced manufacturing companies, spur research and development in the advanced manufacturing sector and provide opportunities for skills training that are linked to Austin Polytechnical Academy," Swinney's nonprofit said in a 2013 report on the project.
World Business Chicago, the business group that serves as Emanuel's de facto economic development arm, has called the innovation park a priority project for the city. And the JPMorgan Chase Foundation has invested more than $1 million in Swinney's nonprofit, the academy and a community group that is promoting the park.
"Congratulations on all your work," White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs Deputy Director Jay Williams said last year after a tour of the school and a meeting with Swinney and other innovation park leaders. "As significant as it is for Chicago, it may be more significant around the nation."
Swinney told the Tribune he is considering several locations but hopes to place the park on the site of the former Brach's candy factory at 401 N. Cicero Ave., where a recently demolished shell of rotting brick has stood as a symbol of Chicago's lost blue-collar industries and South Austin's slow descent into blight.
Independent of the innovation park proposal, the city has earmarked more than $10 million in tax increment financing to clean up the site and lay the groundwork for a new distribution center.
"The Brach's site is beautiful because of its size and symbolism," Swinney said.
Saying he can attract companies involved in micro-machinery and robotics, Swinney said he has signed nonbinding memorandums of understanding with a dozen international and U.S. firms that could locate there — although he declined to name any.
From city records and interviews, the Tribune was able to identify four manufacturing firms that have signed memorandums to partner with Swinney's nonprofit in the park. Two are Turkish companies; one processes dried fruits for snacks and the other makes clothespins.
A third memorandum was signed by a division of Isofoton, a European solar energy manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy in a Spanish court in July. Calling itself the world's seventh-largest solar manufacturer, Isofoton said in recent U.S. court documents that it has faced "growing financial problems," and its effort to build a government-funded solar farm in Ohio is behind schedule and faltering.
The fourth company is LSL Industries Inc., a growing, Chicago-based maker of disposable medical devices. "Our interest is in hiring people from local communities," said LSL President Ash Luthra, who serves on President Barack Obama's National Advisory Council on Minority Business Enterprises.
Luthra added that he was concerned about whether his employees would be safe at the Brach's site, saying he favors an alternate location in the Near West Side medical district.
Some of Swinney's former colleagues say they believe a high-tech manufacturing and training center could benefit the West Side but question whether Swinney should lead the effort.
Daniel Bianchi, who helped develop the innovation park proposal six years ago when he worked for Swinney's nonprofit, grew disillusioned with his former boss. "There is not really a commitment to the community. It was about self-promotion and self-preservation for him," Bianchi said.
Swinney shrugged off the criticism and called persistence one of his key attributes.
"People come and go in any kind of relationship," he told the Tribune. "You'd like everybody to love you and what you do at every stage as a leader, but that doesn't always happen."
He added: "It's been my insistence on quality. Some people don't want quality. It sort of creates tensions."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun