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Emanuel spotlights council charged with preparing minority students for tech jobs

Updated: February 1, 2013 11:03PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel says his administration’s efforts to train women and minorities for high-tech jobs will lead to new businesses, but a specific community-development plan for underserved neighborhoods is still on the drawing board.

“You cannot have community development until you have a skill base,” Emanuel said in an interview Friday after the first meeting of his Technology Industry Diversity Council at the Zapwater public relations firm on the Near West Side.

“There is going to be a part of the initiative to accentuate certain neighborhood strengths,” he said. “Getting people to have skills and education is the building block that comes before everything else.”

The 17-member Tech Diversity Council is doing what Gabrielle “Gabe” Lyon, head of Chicago inner-city science program Project Exploration, called a reinvention of teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills by engaging students in Chicago Public Schools and the City Colleges rather than focusing on elite students.

Lyon said educators often assume that kids won’t be interested in STEM coursework or that only the top achievers will choose the studies.

“This is a different conversation than the status quo,” Lyon said. “It’s about what is right, just and equitable.”

The Tech Diversity Council aims to increase the percentage of minority employees who qualify for tech jobs, increase the number of minority-owned tech firms and train Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges students for tech jobs.

The schools have partnered with a Chicago startup, The Starter League, to teach 10 public school teachers and six City Colleges teachers to set up web-development classes starting in the 2013-2014 school year. They are expected to teach 3,600 students — 1,500 at the high schools and 900 at City Colleges.

The courses will be offered at the city’s Technology Magnet Cluster high schools and at five six-year public high schools that let students graduate with an associate’s degree and the expertise they need to qualify for high-tech jobs. An online component will let teachers update the coursework.

The six-year high schools give students two years of community-college education aimed at fulfilling companies’ needs for skilled workers. The schools are affiliated with IBM, Microsoft, Verizon, Cisco and Motorola Solutions.

The Starter League offers fee-based classes in the 1871 technology hub at the Merchandise Mart to teach beginners how to write computer code and design and develop websites, among other skills.

The company also trains students in the University of Chicago’s graduate computer science program and will start doing so this spring at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business.

Neal Sales-Griffin, co-founder and CEO of The Starter League, said the key is to teach students how to think, since technology changes so rapidly, and to motivate kids to get involved in their communities even before they graduate from the programs. The Chicago Public Schools will evaluate the program after its first year to consider expanding it to all city high schools.

Besides in-school programs, Lyon said the Tech Diversity Council can open a conversation about coordinating or aligning the city’s many scattered STEM programs outside the classroom.

More than 500 groups now run 2,032 out-of-school STEM programs, and though they collectively reached 88,576 kids in 2011, they are run separately and track their outcomes individually, according to preliminary data gathered by the Chicago STEM Cooperative. The Noyce Foundation and the Chicago Foundation for Women formed the cooperative to keep kids involved in STEM activities.

How will the city ensure that they will get jobs in an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated industry?

Emanuel said he has no intention of setting quotas because companies will fall behind on their own if they fail to encourage diversity.

“Any company that excludes people gets beat in the marketplace,” he said, noting that the many company executives with whom he meets are “in a mad-dash search for high-quality workers with motivation and skills.”

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