Dunbar Vocational High School will return to its World War II roots — by preparing students for lucrative jobs in the construction trades that provide an alternative to gangs — under a mayoral plan unveiled Monday.

“If you graduate from high school and you have a tomorrow you’re thinking about, you’re not going to do something stupid today. If you’re in a gang, a lot of these kids don’t think they’re going to live to 24. A skill, an education, a training, gives you a tomorrow to live for,” Emanuel told a news conference at Dunbar, 3000 S. Martin Luther King Drive.

“The biggest piece of confronting violence is providing people opportunity and hope and having the trades in the schools will allow you to do that. . . . It’s not just the trades. If you want to run your own plumbing business. If you want to run your own home business in the sense of fix-up, you’ll have the skill set here to do that.”

Starting this fall, the vocational high school with a student body of 658 thats 97 percent African-American will be known as the “Construction Trades Campus at Dunbar.”

The “new school model” will serve as a “citywide hub” to prepare students for careers in building trades once closed to minorities: general construction, carpentry, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, welding and electricity.

Developed with building trades experts, Dunbar’s curriculum will be “custom-made” to align student learning with industry demands.

The first-year program will serve up to 120 students with a “dual cohort model” tailor-made to serve current Dunbar students and applicants from across the city. The citywide application will give “preference” to students in the surrounding community, officials said, without explaining the cost or how the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public Schools would finance the program.

A partnership with McCormick Place construction firms and trade unions — including the Regional Council of Carpenters, IBEW Local 134, the Laborers’ District Council and Pipefitters Local 597 — will ensure that students are “exposed to professional practices,” officials said.

“The Construction Trades Campus at Dunbar will offer an intensive, two-year option for students from schools throughout the city to attend daily classes that will provide them access to the construction trade industry and the requisite skills to pursue paths such as apprenticeships, post-secondary education, certification programs or a living-wage job,” according to a press release issued by the mayor’s office.

Emanuel was joined by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., in making the announcement at Dunbar. Rush endorsed Emanuel for re-election last year. Emanuel returned the favor, endorsing Rush over Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) in the March 15 Democratic primary.

“It was a dark day in our city . . . when the labor unions decided to move out of Chicago — out of Washburne Trade School — and move into the suburbs. And since that time, we’ve seen some of the results in our neighborhoods even today. That resulted, in part, from the fact that trades were no longer in Chicago,” Rush said.

Rush noted that Dunbar High School stands at the center of a building boom that includes a new DePaul basketball arena, the Obama presidential library and possible construction of the Lucas Museum on a site that now includes Lakeside Center along with a McCormick Place expansion to replace that demolished convention space.

“You have this high school in the midst of all this where students are preparing for their future and how that future would have in it so much hope if they have the requisite skills in the trades that will give them a better opportunity for employment,” Rush said.

“The other part of it will be the creation of small businesses,” he said. “We don’t want every graduate of this program to just be an employee. We can see plumbing businesses coming out of this program and carpentry businesses and welding businesses. The list is endless.”

Dunbar focused on the construction trades when it opened during World War II. It currently offers an array of career and technical education offerings.

Dunbar Vocational High School has a history of educating students for hands-on careers; this is an automotive mechanics class in 1968. | Sun-Times file photo

Dunbar Vocational High School has a history of educating students for hands-on careers. This is an automotive mechanics class in 1968. | Sun-Times file photo

The plan to return the high school “to its roots” is the product of months of negotiations between the Chicago Public Schools, the local school council, community leaders and building trade unions. Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson did not explain how the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public Schools would pay for the expansion.

In 2004, four city buildings inspectors — including the 19- and 23-year-old sons of Carpenters Union officials — resigned after being accused of falsifying their resumes.

The embarrassing incident did not sit well with minority aldermen and fueled talk of an “old boy’s network” that was keeping minorities out of the building trades — and apprenticeship programs out of Chicago.

The following year, a Builders Association of Chicago that once filed a federal lawsuit in a failed attempt to overturn the city’s landmark minority set-aside program did an abrupt about-face on the issue of minority hiring.

The group that represents large commercial construction companies forged a partnership with Dawson Technical Institute and three community organizations to place more minority apprentices in historically white building trades unions.

Specifically, the Builders Association agreed to hire up to 50 candidates a year from Dawson Tech and provide additional employment opportunities for candidates who complete community training programs, ultimately sponsoring all of them into trade union apprenticeships.

In addition, the Builders Association agreed to contribute $25,000 toward tools and transportation for minority apprentices.

For an organization that fought City Hall tooth and nail on the very same issue, it was a precedent-setting turnaround. So was a companion ordinance pushed through the City Council at that time that gives city contractors credits toward the company’s next bid on a city project in exchange for sponsoring Dawson graduates for apprenticeships.

On Monday, Emanuel was asked about a past for Chicago trade unions filled with nepotism, cronyism and racism.

“It’s a fair question to ask about the past. I can’t thank them enough for being part of building a different future,” the mayor said of the trade union leaders standing beside him.

During Emanuel’s 2015 re-election campaign, mayoral challenger Willie Wilson lashed out at Emanuel for accepting the endorsement of 15 trade unions with an “abysmal lack of diversity” in their ranks and a sorry history of “cronyism, racism and nepotism.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel chats with a student before Monday's announcement at Dunbar. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel chats with a student before Monday’s announcement at Dunbar. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times