For the last seven years, I have had the distinct honor to be the principal at Southside Occupational Academy—the only school in the Chicago Public School system that solely focuses on providing transition services to students with disabilities, aged 18 to 22. It is my job as principal to create an environment where my students will become as independent as possible upon graduation.
Our students’ day-to-day schedule looks very different than other high school students’, as they’re involved in experiential learning through internships and job training. Current partner host sites include The Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) and Navy Pier.
One of my students, Brandon Logan, made it his goal to work for UCMC. He said to me, “The day I found out I got the job I did cry a little bit. It was happy tears… I was so proud I got the job at University of Chicago Medicine. Sometimes y’all see me working hard, I’m working hard so I do a good job, make my boss proud, and make my principal proud of me.”
His testimonial shows how important a program like this is—not just to our students, but to the greater South Side community.
When our students are not out in the community, they spend their time learning and exploring other skills through our classrooms that have been modified to emulate real-life settings like a grocery store, car wash, woodshop, apartment, café and professional kitchen. Furthermore, we are always trying to find ways to leverage existing resources and infrastructure so that our students can become more involved, developing new skills.
He said to me, “The day I found out I got the job I did cry a little bit. It was happy tears… I was so proud I got the job at University of Chicago Medicine. Sometimes y’all see me working hard, I’m working hard so I do a good job, make my boss proud, and make my principal proud of me.”
For example, our new agriculture class will include a chicken coop on site. Instead of buying a chicken coop, our woodshop students have built one from scratch. This experiential learning is critical for our students to receive hands-on skills in a supportive setting that could potentially serve them well in a future employment or volunteer opportunity.
The 15 representatives of companies and agencies who toured the school that day were amazed to see the level of hands-on training that our students have, before even visiting a work site. Over a lunch prepared by students in our culinary program, they discussed potential areas of partnership and opportunity.
This was the first time we were able to bring together multiple key stakeholders to meet each other and to see our work in action. Business representatives joined City/County workforce development agencies and community-based nonprofits from Englewood, where our school is located. The discussion-focused format of On the Table was an invaluable tool to both demonstrate the effectiveness of our curriculum on the students and learn from each other about how we can connect them to new opportunities.
At the end of the conversation, one of our guests shouted out that Southside Occupational Academy was “the best-kept secret on the South Side!”
Over the years, my staff and I have worked to develop corporate relationships, but this event exponentially scaled our efforts—enabling us to far exceed our previous reach. This is crucial as too often we see students leave here on their 22nd birthday, when they age out of our services, with no real opportunities. But today we have hope that we are strategically making the right connections to give them a brighter future.
Should you see a partnership opportunity for your organization, I invite you to connect with me.