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Dunbar Vocational: Whose Jobs Are They Anyway?

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When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last month that Dunbar High School was getting a new building trades program, members of the school’s Local School Council stood with him.

Despite being cash-strapped, Chicago Public Schools is going to use capital money to build a $9 million addition onto the school. It will house state of the art workshops where students can learn how to be electricians and carpenters, among other things.

But there is an undercurrent of tension.

Before the press conference, a group of community members was blocked from getting into the event, held in the school’s post-secondary lab. And afterwards, council members said they were still pressing the city and school district to provide some guarantees that Dunbar students would benefit from the program.

Dunbar parent leaders are voicing a concern that is arising throughout the South Side as it experiences a construction boom. While residents are happy to be getting new grocery stores and other amenities, some are worried they will be pushed out as property values increase.

For decades, Dunbar, like the neighborhood around it, has been neglected.

Dunbar was once one of Chicago’s premier vocational schools. Krista Alston, the Local School Council’s secretary, says when she was a student at the school it was a vibrant place where students left with skills that got them jobs.

Her husband Gregory Alston, who chairs the Local School Council, says he learned how to be a tailor at the school and his brother learned how to be a carpenter. They taught those skills to his 15-year-old son, who is now a freshman at Dunbar.

But over the past few decades, the neighborhood lost tons of housing. Nearly a quarter of the residents of Bronzeville are unemployed and a third live below the poverty line.

At Dunbar, the student population dropped from more than 2,000 students to less than 700. Just in the past five years, the school’s budget has been reduced by $5 million.

With fewer students, the vocational classes dwindled from more than 30 to less than 10.

Gregory Alston says he urged his son to attend Dunbar because he and his wife wanted to be involved in the school’s resurgence.

“We wanted to help bring our alma mater back up to the state it used to be when we attended Dunbar,” he says.

Anticipation -- and suspicion

The Alstons and the Local School Council say they are thrilled the school is getting the new programs.

Yet, the way the new program was rolled out and some details of the program itself make them deeply suspicious.

For one, parents got wind of the building trades program before they were officially told about it.

Owen Pittman, who serves as a community representative on the Local School Council, says he thinks the city and the school district wanted to keep control of the program.

Then, council members found out the two-year intensive program was to run from 2:30 to 4:30 daily and students from other high schools could attend. At first, Dunbar students weren’t even guaranteed a spot.

The Local School Council is also wary of involvement by the building trade unions.

Krista Alston says unions have a history of racism and nepotism and the problems continue today.

“The African American community has been locked out and I know some individuals who have paid $500 and they can’t get jobs,” she says. “They go down to the union hall and they sit there and sit there and they send the whites and the Hispanics out.”

Alston and others want the city and school district to demand that the unions and contractors promise to get jobs for graduates of the program.

Alston says they want those promises in writing.

Andrew Wells, workforce development director at the Chicago Urban League, says he thinks the school council members are right for making some demands.

“This is an industry where most of the people are grandfathered in and most are Caucasian,” he says.

Wells says the Urban League ran a state-funded construction and transportation training program and secured guarantees from contractors that their trainees would get jobs.

David Roberts, a 55-year-old black electrician, agrees. Roberts is working as an electrician at the DePaul University stadium, which is being built in the South Loop, just blocks away from Dunbar.

He says the DePaul stadium workforce is a bit more diverse than others where he has worked. He suspects that’s because there’s so much construction work that the companies have no other choice but to send out the black workers.

“Most of the guys are white or Caucasian and they hire friends and family and they keep the guys going for 20 years sometimes,” says Roberts, who is a Dunbar graduate.

A new voice in the mix

One powerful person on the South Side has come out recently, to push back on concerns of the Local School Council.

Once an activist, Leon Finney now runs the Woodlawn Development Corporation, a major landlord and developer on the South Side. He’s powerful and politically connected.

Finney says he’s going to commit $25,000 to the Dunbar Building Trade department.

He says he injected himself because he thought the school council members were being ridiculous.

“In impoverished communities, we need to grab every opportunity we can,” he says.

Finney says just the fact that the unions want to work at Dunbar, a school with almost all black students, shows times are changing.

“I am 77 years old. I know more about how the unions have messed over African Americans than you can possibly know and so I really understand the problem of racial discrimination on the level of unions,” he says. “But I also have another case, I have found a way to work with unions.”

And even if the unions won’t get the black workers jobs, Finney says they can get work independently building homes on vacant lots.

Owen Pittman, the community representative for the Dunbar Local School Council, says the fact that Finney has gotten involved is evidence of how the high stakes around Dunbar’s new training program.

“We have to fight,” he says. “They came at us from all angles. They wanted to keep control.”

Chicago schools Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson says she appreciated the advocacy of the Local School Council. She notes they won the guarantee that all Dunbar students who want to, can attend the program.

Chicago schools officials also said in a statement they are looking to form partnerships with other companies to make sure students get jobs after completing the program.

However, the city and CPS did not respond to the specific request from the school council that promises of jobs be put in writing before the program begins in the fall.

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