When I was thirteen there was a poster next to my bed with a cat hanging onto a rope by its claws. The mantra below the photo was pretty classic — “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”
Hanging on to what feels like world’s end is relatively easy to do if there’s a rope to hang on to. For many non-traditional high school students enrolled at Jefferson High School (JHS), one of Greeley, Colorado’s alternative high schools, the prevailing sense is they have no rope.
Greeley Area Habitat for Humanity (GAHFH) has developed a cutting edge model for these students — the first of its kind in Habitat affiliates across the country — that not only provides a rope — it gives them something to anchor that rope to, climb back up onto the windowsill and look out.
GAHFH hopes JHS’s Construction Management Pathway curriculum will encourage students to open the window, as well.
The project is a collaborative brainchild developed up on a roof.
It only makes sense that a collaboration between Andy Phelps, GAHFH Construction Director, and Patrick Molinari, Discovery teacher at JHS, was the result of their hands-on teamwork nailing a roof on a local Habitat home.
Phelps has spent the past eleven years at GAHFH, overseeing day-to-day operations, coordinating sub-contractors, maintaining a good relationship with the Greeley City Council and working with the organization’s approximately 200 volunteers to build five new homes a year for low-income families. He has a crew of regulars — five retirees over age 65 — and the rest are younger.
When you’re up on a roof, a lot of thoughts seem to get shared with other team members, and for Phelps, a recurring topic of conversation is kids and how to raise them to be conscientious members of society. “With kids,” he told me, “you just have to keep throwing stuff at them and hope something sticks.”
The ‘stuff’ he is talking about are opportunities.
“The kids at JHS often feel as if nobody cares. They stop trying. But if you give them ideas, something in which they might take an interest,” says Phelps, “maybe it’ll be 20 kids, maybe only two who latch on, you’re doing something right.”
The Construction Management Pathway at JHS is precisely that opportunity.
Beginning August 2016, thirty JHS students ages 15-19 will build a house for GAHFH from the foundation up to the roof. Three days a week students will gain technical skills as they learn how to build a home and help a family in need. JHS Construction Management Pathway teacher, Matt Weber, explained that in partnering with Aims Community College, students will take Math 108, a course teaching technical and trade-specific math skills like angles, how to calculate square footage and the volume of concrete they’ll need to pour a foundation. In addition to technical math skills, students will be taught CAD 224, the Revit Architecture software program for computer animated design, where they will learn to create 2-D and 3-D computer models. They’ll learn how to calculate material costs, be exposed to scheduling and appraisal processes, and build scale models from balsa wood.
They will also earn 7 college credits.
It’s a rare opportunity for these high school students, 70% of whom are Hispanic and 90% partake of the free-and-reduced lunch program. To them, the future looks bleak. Instead, they will earn life experience, working with the purchasing family for at least three days on site, framing, painting and installing siding. Working with expert subs, they’ll set forms to pour the foundation, and can watch licensed contractors — electricians, plumbers, HVAC — gaining additional learning opportunities. They will play a part in change and growth.
Another thirty students are enrolled to build a second JHS home in spring 2017.
A program this innovative needs a backbone, which is provided by Patrick Molinari — the other guy up on the roof with Phelps that day — who guides the Discovery curriculum at JHS.
Teaching work and life skills, Molinari finds what he does daily is more philosophy than instruction. The Discovery program goal is to treat students as the young adults they are hoping to graduate. A six-pronged concept involves learning resolution skills and how to achieve classroom success, including educating them about using options other than disagreements and fighting.
“So often students are instructed on what not to do. Instead, the Discovery curriculum teaches the positive aspect of how to play the game — and not how not to play the game,” he explained.
In addition to anger management and communication skills — utilizing adult conversation models to work out problems like adults are expected to do in a work environment — the course teaches empathy. It’s a difficult concept to learn when you’re convinced the rest of the world is against you.
The second and pivotal part of the Discovery curriculum is hands-on learning. The GAHFH partnership is the key, allowing students to get out into the world and help others.
“Kids return from Habitat build days recharged and excited. They say how good they feel about themselves because they did something for somebody else,” says Molinari. “They help each other, they help the adults on site. It becomes a we did it instead of a me.”
Getting JHS students involved in the greater community also helps change the perception of what the alternative high school is all about. The build program turns kids into co-workers, molding them from individuals into community builders within a safe space.
Both Weber and Molinari admit it’s too early to predict what pathways these students will take. Some are looking at construction jobs after graduation, and there’s excitement from women in the class as they learn about options for successful careers in the construction industry.
GAHFH has community partners to help achieve their goal to build two Habitat homes in 2016-17 with JHS. Littler Youth Fund, Greeley Rotary Club and the R.L. Monfort Family Fund are playing a part. A GAHFH Building Impact Breakfast on July 29 aims to finish funding for these two builds.
GAHFH Executive Director Cheri Witt-Brown believes, “This is the type of program that pulls people off the edge of the cliff. It’s a chance to end the poverty cycle. Everyone wants to be a part of something and give back to their community — when they feel appreciated.”
We only have to open the window so they can look out. If they want to fly, that’s up to them.
Do you want to learn more about Habitat for Humanity? Weld County Builds, GAHFH’s annual Building Impact Breakfast will be held July 29 at Salida Del Sol Academy, 7 – 8 am. Can’t attend? Watch for the simultaneous launch of a virtual build on social media to get involved!
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Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @EmFeedsYou . Life inspired. Vodka tempered.
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