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Virginia High Schools Build Houses and Minds - 2003-05-24

Building a house from scratch is not a typical woodworking project for a high school class. But it is this year's project for some students in the state of Virginia. Behind this project is a teacher who believes in the importance of vocational programs.

It is a sunny breezy Spring day and a group of students from different schools in Virginia's Prince William County gather at Forest Park High School, to work on their project, a 115 sq. meter, three-bedroom house. Most students involved in this program do not have previous experience, but they learn while they are working.

First student: "We are putting up the walls inside the closet to separate two closets for different rooms. This is our last wall right now."
Second student: " It's fun and it's good."
Third Student: "Actually we are building a house, and then we will be selling it to the people who want to buy it."

The house is being built on school property, and the buyer will have to haul it to the desired location. Construction technology teacher, Jesse Mason, supervises the work. If students need help, he shows them how to read a blueprint, or execute certain tasks. Math skills are definitely required.

"We have to do a lot of estimating, squaring up and some calculations," he says. "We have to read the scale on the blueprint. So, the more math skills they have the better it is because everything we do here has to be measured and cut."

These vocational students attend regular classes 3 days a week, but on the other 2 days, they work at the construction site, rain or shine.

"We worked outside while it was absolutely horrible weather. I mean we worked out there when nobody else would think about going outside," says Mr. Mason. "We worked out there when the snow was a foot and a half, when it was too cold and the wind was blowing. We only came in from the cold weather one day. All the other times, if we have school, we are out there working."

Though there are no girls enrolled in the construction program this year, they are eligible to join. Since the 1970s when it was introduced in Prince William County public high schools, about 18 girls have participated.

According to Mr. Mason, most of the students enrolled in this project gain a valuable knowledge in home construction as well as in life skills.

"We are trying to teach kids how to do it the right way, in a correct way," he said. "It is more than building a house, because you're training those young people, you're building them and trying to instill in them the right work habits."

Allen Craig, one of the students learning those work habits, joined the construction program last Fall, and even had previous experience. "With the couple of jobs I was on over the summer I learned how to do kitchens, fix cabinets, and I can help put in plugs or put up fans and things like that. It is pretty good," he says. "It can be harder sometimes when you do not know exactly what you are doing, but once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy."

The Prince William County Vocational Foundation, a non-profit organization, funds the construction of these student-built homes. Proceeds from the sale of a house fund the following year's project. Teacher Jesse Mason believes that such programs are crucial for the construction industry to survive.

"We just do not have the skilled level people that we used to have, because this program and other programs all over the country are being cut out because there is a lot of money involved in a program such as this," he says. "It is sad because the average construction person is my age, 56 years-old. And when you look behind, you do not see any younger generation coming along behind you, because it is physically demanding and because it is hard. But guess what? it is one of the best jobs you can ever have. It is a great sense of pride when you say I did that with my two hands."

For some students like Allen Craig, working in construction is a career option to consider, and for other students it is a good chance to develop some skills that can help them take care of their own houses one day.

In the construction classroom at Forest Park High school, photographs of 17 houses line the wall. All those houses were built by students and are located in the neighborhood a testimony of their hard work, and an inspiration for future young home-builders.