In a bright room with state-of-the-art machinery, April Senase stands as a champion for kids who don’t want to follow a traditional post-secondary path. In her classroom, she shows them that a career in trades can make for a fulfilling and successful life.
She knows because she lived it. And although she never thought she’d become a teacher, last year, Senase won the 2023 Illinois State Board of Education’s Teacher of the Year for Early Career Educator Meritorious Service Award. She has been nominated once again this year.
“This program at Proviso West High School is helping students viable career options that don’t necessarily travel down the traditional post-secondary plans,” Senase said. “Just because you are not somebody who is not necessarily book smart only, there is something for those who want to work with her hands. We are bringing the trades back so they can feel good about themselves and feel a sense of pride. This is a career.”
First introduced to manufacturing as a high schooler at Lane Tech College Prep School in Chicago, Senase, won the Technology and Manufacturing Association’s high school precision competition in 1991 and 1992. She found something she was good at, and she loved it, so Senase requested to stay in the program throughout her high school career.
“I enjoyed finding a place where I excelled,” Senase said. She was the first granddaughter in the family following 12 boys and she grew up helping her dad and uncles with cars.
“I enjoyed doing things with my hands. It was the ability to see something from start to finish. It was building something that only the college educated think they can design but without me on the machine, that design couldn’t come to fruition. As a machinist, I can create and I can make.”
Two weeks after graduating high school, she gave birth to her son and decided to stay in the manufacturing industry. Through a program with Wright College Humboldt Park Vocational Education Center, Senase took classes for Computerized Numerical Control machining.
Senase received her certification and graduated as valedictorian from the CNC programming class 18 months later, attending classes from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and then working from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m.
“It was a struggle, but I knew that the benefits of being able to financially support my family and give my family a better life, that was my way to do this,” Senase said. “It was a respectable career.”
For Senase, the challenge was showing everyone that she was not going to be another statistic — a single teen mother from Humboldt Park.
That wasn’t the only barrier Senase faced.
When she entered the work field, Senase saw how prejudice the field could be towards minorities and to women.
“It is a male dominated industry,” Senase said, adding that also at the time, the industry was predominantly white. “They treated minorities poorly at the time, they treated me even worse. Because when the guys, minority or not, had the skills, they respected them. Me, even though I had the skills, they didn’t respect me.”
Senase said she had to work harder than everyone else to earn the respect and promotions that others got without the same amount of experience she had.
“That is where part of where my pride about coming here to Proviso comes from, that this is a minority community,” Senase said. “That this is a community of Black and Brown people who need to know that these jobs are out here: that are respectable, that are in trades because not everyone is made for or should go to college. I wanted to be the one to guide them through the struggles I went through.”
Despite the initial challenges, Senase stayed in the field and toward the end of her career, 20 years later, was making upward of $120,000.
That is when Proviso West came calling.
TMA, the trade school that Senase worked at during the evenings teaching adults, was on the board for Proviso Township High School District 209 board that was attempting to revitalize the manufacturing programs at the high school and began reaching out to her in hopes of having her be the instructor.
“They had been begging me to apply,” Senase said, adding that she did not want to go to college to receive her teaching degree to work as a high school teacher, but the Illinois State Board of Education was able to grant her a provisional license to teach due to her experience, and she only needed 10,000 hours of competency in the field.
Senase said she then faced the decision of actually pursuing teaching.
“I was like man if I don’t do it, who is going to for these kids,” Senase said. “I had myself financially in a position, with my son being grown, that I felt like I could do some good for some kids. I felt like if I could reach one or two of them each year, to make a change in somebody’s life, then I know my purpose here was served.”
Senase began at West during 2020, the year the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Trying to create a program from the ground up was hard enough, but during a global pandemic where students were not even in the classroom was a different kind of challenge, yet one that Senase surpassed.
“We found ways to work around it,” Senase said. “It intrigued some of the kids. I was able to draw some of the kids in and we learned together.”
When the school opened up again, Senase said she faced new challenges working around the supply chain, as well as changes in the district.
Despite the challenges, Senase pulled together a full curriculum, pulling worksheets from her classes at TMA and asking industry partners what they would want for future employees to know to be able to be successful in a job.
Today the manufacturing program has four levels: foundations of technology, manual machines, CNC, and CNC II.
“I don’t want to chase a textbook, I want realistic skills,” she said.
As students make their way through the program, Senase said she wants to make sure she is able to help the students who see this as a potential career after graduating high school.
“They don’t need to go through all four years to get a job,” Senase said, adding that senior students can enroll in CNC for one year and that is enough to get them a job, which she tries to help in through her industry connections. “I reach out to a lot of our local companies here because what better way to bring up the community as a whole. If I get these kids to get jobs in the community with money that is going to be spent in the community, it is going to be a way to bring it up as a whole.”
Other routes taken by her students have also included apprenticeships.
“The company agreed to pay for their three years of trade school for a five-year commitment, they will have their journeyman card at the end of five years,” Senase said. “At today’s numbers, they will be at about $29 an hour, at 23 years old and with no college debt.”
Despite always saying she did not want to go to college, and finding ways around a teaching degree, toward the end of 2021 Senase learned about dual-credit, where students could earn college credit for their classes at West. However, because she lacked a college degree, her courses didn’t count.
“I made a commitment to my kids that I was going to do the best I could do for them,” Senase said. “So, I enrolled back in college.”
Now with an associate degree, Sensase’s students can receive dual-credit for her courses at Triton College.
Making sure the program continues to grow, Senase said she always takes it upon herself to work her industry connections and apply for grants, which has been successful as the high school was awarded a grant from TMA of $119,000, which paid for two CNC machines.
The manufacturing program at West has also now earned a spot as part of the coveted SME Prime Program, the most comprehensive manufacturing and engineering program for high school students, an honor only granted to 60 schools across the country, of which only two others are located in Illinois.