After the Table

One conversation leads to diverse workforce opportunities for students with disabilities

Pictured above: A Southside Occupational Academy student arranges linen during his internship at Hyatt.

By Kimberley Rudd | May 1, 2018

When Joshua Long began planning for On the Table in 2017, he wasn’t shy about setting a topic – he was crystal clear. The principal of Southside Occupational Academy High School – a one-of-a-kind Chicago Public School for young adults, ages 18-21, with disabilities – Long knew what action he wanted his table’s discussion to lead to: more opportunities for his students.  

“While general-education students move onto the world of work or college, our students come to us for transitional life skills to make them as independent as possible once they graduate.” 

Joshua Long, principal of Southside Occupational Academy High School

Long said “We have both the enormous task and opportunity of giving these students the skills they need, while finding partners in the community that can educate them in a real-world environment. So, our table conversation was about how we could find more partners to diversify the community internship placements that we have for the students.”

Southside Occupational Academy, which has 270 students, places interns at nearly a dozen work sites in the city, generally in groups of 10, for two to four days a week. These unpaid internships offer work-based skills development and job training, along with a public transit stipend and mentoring from established co-workers at each site.

For On the Table 2017, Long merged invitation lists with his host partners, ADA 25 Advancing Leadership and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and was pleased when the invited guests included Eric Charlson, an executive with Hyatt hotels.

“Eric came, and we just engaged him,” Long said about the table conversation. “We had been really successful with getting students working in hospitals, handling different jobs, from food service to central supply to hospitality to security services. Students can work independently or alongside a hospital mentor, and so we really wanted to get into a hotel to give our students that opportunity.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Charlson, area director of human resources, Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and Park Hyatt Chicago, was on board with the idea of engaging students. “Last year at an On the Table event, I met with a group of potential partner organizations at Southside Occupational Academy for a conversation to learn more about the school and potential future partnerships with it. I was immediately impressed and thought there could be a rewarding partnership with the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place to provide hospitality experience to their students,” he said. “The partnership made perfect sense, given a pillar of our Hyatt Thrive platform is our company focus on giving back through local community partnerships. In addition, I envisioned potential future job opportunities for Southside students within the hospitality industry upon their graduation from the school program.”

Pictured above: A Southside Occupational Academy High School student interning at a local Chicago hospital.

In a matter of weeks, Charlson collaborated with Sharon Bojan, a Southside teacher, to get the partnership up and running for the 2017-2018 school year. Today, 10 Southside Occupational Academy students work at the Hyatt locations two days each week in banquet and housekeeping departments.  

During a recent visit to Hyatt, Long was able to see students busy in several areas. They were  making gourmet sandwiches alongside a chef, removing laundry from a massive chute, washing dishes, restocking a hotel information kiosk and delivering supplies. For the 2018-2019 school year, Long is hoping to make the hotels full-time, four-days-a-week work sites.

Other Southside Occupational Academy worksites include Navy Pier, the University of Chicago Medical Center, Mercy Hospital, Mt. Sinai Hospital, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry.  

“So far the partnership has been fantastic,” said Charlson, “and we have worked with their students on job readiness within the hospitality industry by giving them hands-on experience.”

“The partnership has been so successful that we are excited to continue it into the 2018-2019 school year.”

Eric Charlson, area director of human resources, Hyatt

What does Long want to happen after this year’s On the Table?

“This work is so fluid,” he said. “We are, by CPS definition, merely a specialty high school, a place where students go who can be better educated in a separate environment from their general-education peers.”

“But we see ourselves as innovators,” he added.  “We’re looking at Chicagoland as an area where we can figure out how to best develop the skills that our students need as they transfer into adulthood.”

Southside Occupational Academy High School has two locations: Its main campus is at 7342 S Hoyne Ave., and its C3 Hub is on the third floor of 2710 S. Dearborn St. Joshua Long has been its principal for eight years. For more information, visit  

Pictured above: A partnership between two local Hyatt hotels and Southside Occupational Academy High School (a Chicago Public School for students with disabilities who are ages 18-21) was sparked at On the Table in 2017.  Now, 10 students are interns at Hyatt’s McCormick Place and Hyde Park locations, gaining work experience in hospitality, and the partnership is expected to grow in the 2018-2019 school year.