WHAT’S THE STORY: The Independence School District buys blighted houses or empty lots and has students in the Industrial Technology Academy’s Construction CTE classes rebuild them to learn the construction trade.

WHY IT MATTERS: In addition to teaching students the construction trade, it is also helping with retention of students who don’t excel in a normal classroom environment. The program is also helping the community because the houses will be marketed at discounted prices to Independence police officers and firefighters, employees of the Independence School District and possibly military veterans.

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Some Independence School District students are literally building for the future.

The district's burgeoning Industrial Technology Academy is teaching students the construction trade through its capstone Construction CTE (Career Technical Education) classes while trying to help the community at the same time.

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ISD Superintendent Dale Herl sees it as a win-win-win for all involved.

"The biggest piece of this is we really wanted to make our community better while also giving opportunities to the kids," Herl said.

Through the program the school district is beginning to purchase blighted houses at a deeply discounted rate and tearing them down and having the students rebuild them to learn the trade. Once the houses are finished, the district will market them at discounted rates to Independence police officers or firefighters or employees of the Independence School District.

Students in three classes from all three high schools – 32 in all from Truman, Van Horn and William Chrisman – are now working on a pair of houses just north of William Chrisman High School. One house on High Street is nearly finished and they are working on the finishing touches, like building a deck.

The other, on East 3 Drive South, is currently in the middle of construction. The students – under tutelage from instructor Scott Engelmann – tore the house down mainly to the frame. They've rebuilt the outside siding and poured concrete for a new porch and a new driveway. They plan to install drywall and the flooring next and add the finishing touches before the houses go up for sale.

"It's great just to get the experience of learning all different types of things such as concrete, drywalling, electrical, plumbing, and learn a bunch of different trades all in one," said Truman student Donald Waggoner, who plans to go into the construction business after high school.

Engelmann said it's also serving the community in a different way.

"Right now the construction industry suffering a real jobs/skills gap, between the number of qualified people and what they need are just worlds apart," he said. "I think education for the most part has been ignoring the trades in the past, and that's kind of led to the jobs/skills gap. But that's changing. I think Independence is kind of at the forefront of that."

Engelmann said he's already hearing from companies wanting to hire his students.

"We're getting calls, I'm getting calls from all kinds of contractors and different trades wanting to talk to my kids and hopefully get them working for them," he said. "A couple (students) are even looking at early graduation because they've had job offers."

Engelmann also enjoys passing along his knowledge to the students.

"It's trying to find things to keep 16 kids busy, and that can be a challenge," he said with a laugh. "But it's keeping me real busy, and I think it's a real worthwhile endeavor. It sure makes my days go by quickly."

 

Hands-on work

The students – many of whom admit they struggle in a normal class environment – also are happy to be learning a real world skill with hands-on work.

"I don't learn in a classroom. I've never done well in a classroom. I've always done good hands-on. If my hands are literally on it, you're actually doing it, you get to see the finished product instead of looking on a computer screen," said Alex Babcock, another Truman student who already works in construction and is hoping to go into the field of construction management.

"I've always been able to learn with my hands more than my head, and this class is really fun honestly. It's better than sitting at a desk all day, not being able to really move," said Mason VanVeen, a William Chrisman student.

"In the classroom you can't predict what's going to happen. Here you can actually see it, and the teacher can watch you do it and correct you when you do it wrong. It's real world stuff," said Truman student Devante Kelley. "... It's just confirmed the fact of how much I like construction. You get a pile of wood and you get to make a whole house out of it, it's just something that you can't get in school."

One student, Cameron Baughman of William Chrisman, said this kind of learning helps with his attention deficit disorder and has even helped in his core courses, like math.

"I used to be horrible at math and being in here has taught me a lot more, and I've improved a lot more in math," he said. "And it actually allows me to be out on the site. I have ADD, so being out here, being active and always moving with something to do kind of helps with that."

Josh Arriaza of William Chrisman likes learning about teamwork as well.

"It's great getting to work with the team, instead of on individual projects. Everyone gets to work together to make one thing," he said.

 

Student retention

Herl also believes teaching students through the academies, like the Industrial Technology Academy, will help retain students and keep them from dropping out. He said he is hearing from other districts that want to copy the model.

"The ISD is at the forefront of the changing landscape of the high school experience. We are engaging students through hands-on learning opportunities, including the Construction CTE course," Herl said. "Students are engaged because they see the relevance of what they are learning in the classroom and how they can apply that in the real world. I’m very proud that we have school districts visiting us from around the metro and across the country to study our academies."

Engelmann said he also takes his students to watch and learn from a current Habitat for Humanity project house nearby. Herl said he hopes to collaborate with Habitat on some projects in the future "as the program continues to evolve."

Herl said the district is already looking to buy more empty parcels of land and other blighted houses inside the district for future students to build or rebuild. Engelmann said the goal is to finish the house on High Street soon and finish the house on East 3 Drive South by the end of the school year.

 

Helping the community

Many of the students are also excited to not only learn a trade, but to help out by reducing the number of blighted houses and help civil servants within the community buy affordable housing.

"It's a nice feeling, just being able to do something that's for other people. You're helping other people while you're in the process of helping yourself," Waggoner said.

"I love the fact that it's going to go toward an officer or somebody in the community, maybe an Army veteran, so that's really cool, instead of someone who didn't really need the house who would have just bought it and sold it to somebody at a higher price. It's good to give it to someone who might need it more," said Khy'Ree Tabron of Truman.

Arriaza and VanVeen say they've been helped by the community, so they're happy to give back.

"It feels pretty good. The police have helped me before so I think it's a good way to help them," Arriaza said.

"It feels really good because the community has helped me out a lot throughout my childhood. Getting to give back makes it a lot more fun."

Babcock said the word is getting out too.

"It's great. Both of my parents work in the emergency field and I'm friends with a lot of the Independence police officers, and they know about this, and they're excited about it," he said. "They come by the house all the time, even when we're not here. They say, 'We've been by the house and it's looking really good.' I'm an Eagle Scout too, so it's part of my day to day to help people and that's just been driven into my head, so it's a great feeling."