At East Valley High School Friday morning, you could hear the tapping of hammers and the whine of power saws and smell sawdust in the air.
Two student teams competed to build a picnic table and bench. Each had to design their own tables and benches and build them from a pile of lumber provided by the school. The teams were judged on design creativity and construction execution.
Part of the new construction program at East Valley, 15711 E. Wellesley Ave., the competition was the first Friday Challenge for the class. It is the first year the district has offered the program, which is both a career and technical education (CTE) class, teaching skills students can use in the workforce, and a credit retrieval course for struggling students.
“If it wasn’t for this class, I would have to do so much make-up work,” said senior Kris Thomas, 18.
Thomas and his classmates spend the whole school day together. They spend half of their day working on the academic side of construction work. When they recently rebuilt the garden shed at the school, they came up with a design, drew it to scale, calculated a bill for the materials needed and wrote a paper about the project.
The second half of the day is spent in hands-on construction work. The only aspect of the shed the students couldn’t do was the roof, which was finished by professional roofers.
Teacher Chuck Dunning said safety is a top priority in the class. Before they can use any of the power tools, they must pass a safety test and demonstrate competency. They know how to take the tools apart and change the blades on the saws.
“They know how to handle their tools,” Dunning said. “They know what they’re doing and they’re doing really well.”
He said the school follows Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines as well as CTE safety guidelines.
During Friday’s challenge, students used power saws with ease, as well as drills, sanders, hammers and more.
Dunning said many of the students had trouble staying in school last year, but they show up every day on time and ready to go to work in the construction program.
“Eighty percent have had moderate to severe difficulty being in school,” he said. “They have a sense of disassociation.”
But in the construction program, they are learning leadership skills, citizenship and skills for the workforce.
John Savage, CTE director at the school, said the class may be hands-on, but it is as rigorous as traditional classrooms.
“This is not to make kids pound nails for a living,” Savage said. “(We want them to) find something they like to do.”
He highlighted the staff in the program, which includes not only Dunning but also Ray Riggin, a former math teacher and current owner of Home Run Construction, and Rod Cooper, a former shop teacher at Mountain View Middle School.
“We’re really lucky to have this skill set,” Savage said.
“Ray makes them work to a business standard, a professional standard,” Dunning agreed.
“Most of these kids aren’t going to college,” Riggin said. He said he was introducing students to different jobs in the manufacturing and construction industry. “They have a hard time finding people who want to learn the skills.”
He noted that plumbers, electricians and carpenters make good livings.
“These are kids who would otherwise not be engaged in academic learning,” said Superintendent John Glenewinkel. He noted that while schools were moving away from vocational training in the past, districts are moving back to teaching skills to use in the workforce.
The class isn’t just for the boys. There are three girls in the class of 26.
“It makes me feel strong,” Christina Garbuzov, a sophomore, said of learning an occupation traditionally held by men. She said she loves the class and took the time to learn the math she needs in it.
“I always leave with a smile on my face,” said Angelina Miroshin, also a sophomore. She was recruited by the counselor’s office at the school to make up some credits.
While the students are working on picnic tables this month, they are in for a year of more challenging projects. Dunning said the goal is to teach students to build modular classrooms for the district’s elementary schools. The district is moving to a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade primary program and needs the extra space.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do in that second semester,” he said.
Dunning said the staff is investigating what they need to do to allow students to learn roofing skills for the project, which will be completed at the high school. The four, 10,000-square-foot buildings will be moved to the elementary schools.
Thomas is looking forward to future projects as well.
“Ten to 15 years from now I’ll show my kids what I built for my school,” he said. “I love this class.”