GARRETT– As Garrett High School students worked in classrooms nearby, fifth graders Tuesday busied themselves in a workshop, creating handmade wooden Mother's Day gifts – decorative items for the home.
J.E. Ober Elementary School students are a regular presence in the high school, as are Garrett Middle School students, through classes designed to spark interest in construction and manufacturing. In high school, students may enroll in the career development program launched this academic year.
“It's exceeding my expectations,” said Chad Sutton, director of career development at the high school.
The program fits with Garrett High School's mission to graduate responsible, productive citizens, he said.
“Students that successfully complete the program will not only have the academic knowledge needed to be successful, but the soft skills and trade-specific expertise and experience they need to become gainfully employed with economic freedom,” the high school said in a news release promoting the program last year.
Garrett previously offered construction trades only to juniors and seniors.
Sutton got the idea to include fifth graders from the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia, which implemented an after-school program for elementary students to begin woodworking skills. He, however, wanted to expand that idea by including an entire class and got the OK from the elementary principal and superintendent of Garrett-Keyser-Butler Community Schools.
“My vision was to start a youth program that led into our career development program,” Sutton said. “Giving students opportunities to explore skills and abilities they did not know they had, also to build upon skill sets they already had.”
He is unaware of any other northeast Indiana district offering similar opportunities for students that young.
Randy Strebig, owner of Strebig Construction, applauds the inclusion of elementary students.
“It's awesome,” he said. “The earlier any young person can identify an interest and develop a passion about something, the better off they are.”
Sutton sought grants to help with the career development program's costs.
He is proud to show off new textbooks from the National Center for Construction Education & Research and equipment including a virtual welder and CNC router, a computer-controlled machine that can cut, carve and slice steel, wood and aluminum with precision. CNC stands for computer numeric control.
Sutton expects the program will evolve. For now, fifth graders take what they call construction class, and those hands-on, career-related experiences continue through middle school. In high school, courses integrate core academic classes with the trades, making subjects like English and math practical and relevant.
That includes students writing instruction manuals for hunting sheds they built and using math concepts for the construction and calculation of materials costs, Sutton said, stressing that's just one example of integrated academics.
“The whole idea is we want learning to look completely different,” he said.
Strebig sees value in that. As a student, he said, he didn't understand why he was learning about geometry and equations.
“It would have made a huge difference for me in math,” Strebig said. “I would have found it a lot more interesting.”
By senior year, the release said, high school students will be prepared for an internship or apprenticeship in the trade of their choice.
Building toward stronger future
Sam Farney is among the upperclassmen building a one-story, three-bedroom home in the Baltimore Place subdivision blocks from the high school. The senior credits the opportunity for helping him realize what he wants to do after graduation.
“It gave me more of a plan for my future,” Farney said, noting he is excited about an interview this week with Shambaugh & Son, a construction engineering services company with a Fort Wayne office.
Students building the house are in the career development program's advanced stage of construction classes.
Sounds of paint rollers were common at the work site Tuesday as students primed the walls. Although some aspects of the house were done by professionals – plumbing, electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning – “the kids helped every step of the way,” teacher Tyler Emrick said.
Camden Bodey, another senior, is interviewing with Granite Ridge Builders and plans to study construction management at Ivy Tech Community College. She dreams of flipping houses and got a taste of that when Garrett students remodeled a home last year.
Sutton plans to have students build a subdivision of nearly 10 homes near the remodeled residence on South Second Street across the street from the Garrett-Keyser-Butler campus. The future neighborhood is named Brennan Estates after the family who donated the property, he said.
Attracting future employees
On Wednesdays, Sutton said, the high school welcomes representatives from area businesses to talk with students about their company and career possibilities.
Jamie Lancia of Lancia Homes has enjoyed interacting with students. He provided an overview of his job and company and described the skills needed to work in construction, he said.
“As being one of the top homebuilders in northeast Indiana, we know as employers we have to work with school systems to help invest in the youth who will be our future employees,” Lancia said, noting his company hired a 2018 Garrett graduate last spring.
Strebig, who plans to interview Garrett students for summer construction jobs, hopes his story resonates with the classes he visits. He disliked being in the classroom but loved creating things and started his business in high school. He wants students like him to know it's OK if they don't fit the mold the education system seems to push.
About half of Garrett's 2016 graduates went to college directly after high school, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. The agency reported five of the 50 students who attended an in-state public college enrolled in a trades program.
About 635 students in the nearly 1,750-student district are involved this year when factoring in the elementary and middle school students, Sutton said. About 40 underclassmen – mostly freshmen – enrolled in the career development program this year, he said, and another 40 ninth graders are expected next year.
“This program is going to double and triple fast,” he said.