Don’t sort students, give them choice (college-for-all Part 2)

The Austin Polytechnical Institute, in Chicago, is an interesting American example of a school that conceives its mission as being as much “vocational” as “college prep.”

Located on Chicago’s West Side, Austin Polytechnical Academy (APA) is a college and career prep high school with a focus on manufacturing and engineering. Our students learn real world skills to help them succeed in college, careers, and life.

The school was featured in a recent article in the New York Times…

Steven McIlrath, Austin Polytech’s math teacher, said he did not object to careers in the trades. “Making stuff is a good honest living — there is nothing wrong with that,” said Mr. McIlrath, who lives in the neighborhood and has worked in the building for the last 16 years. “But my caution with that is that we can’t be a sorting machine.”

Another (see previous) terrific former student of mine, Y.R., called several years ago to tell me he was dropping out of Penn State’s Abington campus. Apparently I once suggested that he become an EMT and he did (at least, he credits me, I don’t remember saying it). By the end of his freshman year he had decided that the debt he was accruing as a decent student majoring in history was never going to be returned in increased job prospects. Instead, he became a full time EMT, studied for a got his paramedics license and is now a well-paid paramedic who is still deciding what paths the future may hold.

I really pushed Y.R. to go to college. I really believed that he would value the experience and in some ways he did. There is even a chance he might still go to college at some point because he loves learning. I am confident, at least, that he will continue to pursue his passions and interests.

I wish he hadn’t accrued so much debt in the name of doing what he had been told to do, however. I am sorry that he wasn’t ready to succeed in college the first time around and I wish we had given him more choice so that he could have made an honest plan that accounted for how hard school would actually be for him both financially and academically.


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