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Photo Essay

Slideshow: Students learn to rebuild history

New York City national parks program introduces students to tradecraft
  • A Mather Building Arts & Craftsmanship High School planes wood pieces for a toolbox and stonecutting. Hands-on projects like this prepare students for later study in the trades as they relate to preservation.
  • a historic-structures mason at the National Park Service’s Historic Architecture Conservation & Engineering Center instructs students in the trades.
  • A student in the “Introduction to Historic Preservation” class.
  • Students are introduced to masonry through stonecutting demos in the freshman “Introduction to Historic Preservation” class.
  • Field experiences for students include walking tours of New York City. Above, a teacher at Mather Building Arts & Craftsmanship High School explains landscaping decisions in a local park.

New York City students are getting a taste of carpentry and other trades through a partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) focused on refurbishing historical buildings.

Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar challenged NPS’ New York regional department about five years ago to gather ideas to increase involvement with local communities that were not engaged with urban national park sites.

The initiative was also designed to help increase the number of skilled craftspeople preserving the country’s aging historic landmarks, says Stephen Spaulding, NPS’ northeast regional chief of historic architecture, conservation and engineering.

The Stephen T. Mather Building Arts & Craftsmanship High School was created in 2013 with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administrative support and U.S. Department of Education funding.

The school is a career and technical education high school for hands-on skills training in the building arts and landscape trades, focused on high-quality craftsmanship and historic preservation. In the classroom, NPS employees work with Mather’s instructors to teach the skills.

Field trips to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, historic Richmond Town in Staten Island, and Manhattan’s Castle Clinton expose students to the intricacies of carpentry, masonry and landscaping.

A benefit of this partnership is that “NPS gets a stable of people who are interested in their work and parks,” says Mather’s principal, Larry D. Gabbard. “It is a benefit for our urban students to do actual craft-working with tools and landscape management through the lens of history.”

The school prepares students for the future, such as a career in a trade union using certifications they can achieve by graduation, or the study of historic preservation and architecture in college.

“They learn how the economy affects the city, how it has evolved,” Spaulding adds. Mather instructors also focus on teaching work values, such as responsibility, taking risks, relationship-building, active participation and teamwork.

“There is great potential for different kinds of partnerships for districts with other large national parks that are culturally significant across the country, whether it involves incorporating a program or having a separate school,” says Gabbard.