“Waiting no more” to inspire Chicago’s future tech leaders

We helped create the Chicago Tech Academy for selfish reasons: the number of high school students going to college to study science, technology, mathematics and engineering is desperately low. As employers and entrepreneurs in the tech industry, the 700 members of the Illinois Technology Association already have trouble filling skilled jobs today, and the looming gap in five years was critical.

“Waiting no more” to inspire Chicago’s future tech leaders from Chicago Tech on Vimeo.

Mayor Daley recognized the workforce need, and challenged us to create a public school that would match students with the right curriculum, teaching approach and connections to industry to inspire a new generation of technology leaders. We decided to search for students from some of the most challenging parts of the system: open enrollment, accepting motivated students from across the city, regardless of their prior academic performance. We found students for our first freshman class already at or above grade level in reading, math and science. We also found students who were many grade levels behind, and committed to teach both toward a path for success.

We just completed our third freshman lottery and more than 1,000 hopeful students waited to hear their name called. Word had spread that this new school was a place for kids to learn the basics, and so much more. ChiTech students learn from a curriculum that includes hands-on, relevant technology skills, infused with an entrepreneurial spirit. Right away, freshmen study computer science, programming and how technology can solve problems and create value in the world. They interact with mentors that teach them about building businesses and reinforce the importance of staying in school. They learn to set expectations of themselves, and grow from the expectations placed on them by hundreds of teachers and mentors from Chicago’s tech community.

The average age of people inside mission control during America’s first trip to the moon was 26 . Eight years before, when JFK challenged America to go to the moon, all of those engineers were in high school. Chicago’s competitiveness in the world depends on today’s high school students, and it is simply not sustainable to have over half drop out of school. All kids – not just the ones who made it onto selective enrollment tracks or lucky enough to come from families and communities that can help – deserve a positive view of their future.

Chicago Tech Academy’s story – just like the story of each of our students – is still being written. Not unlike startups in the tech world, this school is also just a startup. We’re not spending a bunch of new money, we’re just investing more of our time and creativity. We do know we’re making a difference: though kids commute up to three hours a day to and from school, our average daily attendance rate was 92% last year, about 10 or 12 points higher than the CPS average. Despite a heavy enrollment from at risk youth, we finished our first year with more than 75% of students on track to graduate, a key predictor of future success for freshmen.

Students took regular field trips to Microsoft, Google, NAVTEQ and many other Chicago area tech companies big and small. They interacted with dozens of mentors and guests at the school. They created web sites, studied video game design, produced videos and podcasts, learned programming skills and built computers. They wrote business plans for new ideas they developed as a team, and honed critical life skills like public speaking, analytical thinking and problem solving.

We recognize not every school can count on heavy involvement from industry leaders… even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took time out to be a mentor at ChiTech last year. But in everything we do, we keep an eye toward how our efforts might become replicable and scale beyond the walls of our school. We’re humbled by the job before us, and the monumental need for others to get involved in the public school system to help make a difference. We understand success depends on engaged parents, passionate and serving teachers, a rigorous but interesting curriculum, the right school culture and lots of connections to the world and workforce these students will someday enter.

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