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Construction Dispatch

A look at real-world trends in the facilities and construction arena

Giving Construction Curriculum A Chance

Popular with high school students--and not just the academic underachievers--vocational programs in construction across the country are providing students with a leg up toward earning a college degree or getting a job right out of high school. But they're increasingly facing a wrecking ball.

"Vocational programs in construction are being eroded," says Lee Terry, a former member of the board of directors for the California Coalition for Construction in the Classroom, a group that promotes these programs. Terry, a San Mateo, Calif.-based recruiter for the building industry, sees two main reasons for this: "lack of funding for programs and equipment, and the folly of counselors (and the president) telling everyone that they need to take college prep courses instead of vocational education."

Many people say these programs are not only worth fighting for, but necessary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 1,978,000 new homes being built across the U.S. in July, about a 4.5 percent rise over July 2003. The need for construction workers is booming.

Not surprisingly, construction courses are popular in areas experiencing population growth. Take Walker County, Ga., for instance. Ridgeland High School's Construction Trades program teaches students residential carpentry, plumbing and electrical techniques. Linda Barker, assistant principal and vocational supervisor, says the area is growing and busy with residential construction. "Our students will take the entire three-semester curriculum and then are eligible to do an apprenticeship."

Vocational programs in general don't have the same stigma they once had. In fact, many follow an academy model and are within the high school setting. "It's going away from that idea of taking the poor performing students into an adjunct facility and teaching them the trades," says Carolee Mills, vice president of workforce development for Home Builders Institute. "It's become a really mainstream activity."

Students in Denver Public Schools' 15-year-old construction program, part of the magnet school CEC Middle College of Denver, can even earn college credits while completing high school graduation requirements.

And they graduate with a very marketable skill, notes Mark Bell, instructor of the program, which is housed in a 5,000-square-foot classroom. "Many students earn $12 an hour out of high school, but when my students finish a four-year training program, with my program and a continuation at the community college, they're looking at making $25 to $27 an hour."

Some programs give students a chance to learn construction skills on the job. Pasco (Wash.) School District #1 has students in its construction courses, which are part of the regular high school program, building an actual house in the community.

Notes Chris Martinson, the district's director of career and technical education, seven residential homes have been built from the ground up, using both skilled professionals and student workers. "A 501C3 board--[including] a realtor, an appraiser, an attorney, and a CPA--owns the property and the house," Martinson explains. The tax-exempt organization secures the construction loan, local businesses make donations of labor and materials and different student groups work on one home each year. The board then puts the home up for sale, and proceeds cover the cost of land for the next year's house (with any leftovers going to a scholarship program).

More than 125 students work on each house every year, including students in interior design, marketing, agricultural and welding classes. And it's an equal-opportunity program, Martinson says. "We try to encourage girls to consider non-traditional career choices like architecture."

K-16 Building Sharing On the Rise

Indian River Community College and School Board of Martin County (Fla.) are developing the Advanced Learning Center, a joint-use facility on the college campus. It's envisioned as a national model for technology-based academic programs between a K-12 district and college.

Although dual enrollment and K-16 programs have existed for years, the trend of creating joint-use facilities between K-12 and higher education is just beginning, explains Joseph J. Sorci, president of FLA/Florida Architects, design architects for the $8.2 million ALC project. "Several very successful models have been created around the country in recent years and are mostly shared by high school and college students."

Benefits include offering small groups of students another choice from the typical public school program, which might be causing boredom, decreased interest and higher dropout rates, he notes. Joint-use facilities can offer faster-paced, more interesting programs and give high school students the opportunity to earn accelerated college credit.

Moorpark (Calif.) Unified School District, in collaborating with Moorpark College, is about to break ground on a 44,662 square foot, $20.8 million facility on the college campus. The program isn't new, though. It's entering its fifth year, with portable classrooms having been "home" to date.

Frank DePasquale, the district's superintendent, says the program eases crowding at the high school. "That's an unintended consequence, though. The real motivation was to give students who were disillusioned or potentially dropouts another educational option."

"We've scheduled the high school classes in the afternoon, when college use is not as heavy," says Victoria Bortolussi, the college's dean of student learning. At other times, the building will be reserved for college use.

In terms of the facility planning process, it can be a challenge for districts to find the ideal partner. Sorci advises administrators to look for a good architect and liaison who listens, embraces the concept and assists each entity in planning and developing the educational program and building design.