Tools for building futures
Photography: Paulette Phlipot
Long before the bell rings to signal the start of class, these students are seated at their desks, focused on their projects. A quiet air of concentration fills the room. Under construction are miniature frame houses, being built to specifications as exacting as those for real buildings. This is the scene as instructor Michael Walsh walks into his classroom on the Wood River High School campus. Michael Walsh worked as a carpenter between stints of teaching, and loved it. He returned to the academic world to teach social studies, but recently made a career change within a career when he became the instructor for the Jim Woodyard Residential Construction Academy. After years spent trying to interest kids in the subject being taught, Walsh is amazed at the difference in the attitude of these students, who are required to make a two-year commitment to the program and are expected to work a summer apprenticeship in the industry. The reason, as he sees it, is that they want to be here. (That theory is borne out by a comment from construction student Andrew Taylor: “I really look forward to this time of day.”)
The Residential Construction Academy is part of a larger program that represents a quiet revolution in education. It is one result of a growing awareness of the need for education to be more relevant, more closely connected to the community, and more specifically oriented to the career goals of high school students. Only one of several academy programs now offered, the Residential Construction Academy can also provide a skill level salary for students seeking to pay college expenses no matter their ultimate field of study.
The vision of an academy program was presented by Dr. Jim Lewis, Blaine County Superintendent of Schools, in l999. The idea was developed at strategic planning meetings, and implemented when the construction of a new high school allowed for the necessary space. The pilot program for the construction academy began at the Carey High School, three years ago. The following year, Jim Woodyard, a local contractor who served on the board of the National Association of Home Builders, came on board as an advisor. Woodyard helped design and refine the program, and expand it into Wood River High School.
The construction academy is unique in many ways, including its approach to the subject. Mike Walsh emphasizes, “This is not shop class. These students learn about every aspect of the business, from actual hands-on construction to bidding. They study math as it applies to the field. They see how physics principles pertain to structural strength, learning why, for instance, diagonal bracing makes a framed wall stronger. They work as team members in class to learn the skills necessary to work successfully with others on the job site.”
Integration between the students’ core classes and the construction academy allows them to study technical writing in their English classes and construction math problems in their math classes. With the relevancy of all subjects thus emphasized, students in the construction academy tend to improve academically overall. Dr. Lewis’s theory, “Find passion; focus will follow,” has proved true.
“We might have lost some of these kids,” observes John Peck, the principal of the Carey High School. “They just lit up when they joined this program,” adds Mike Walsh. Construction academy graduates receive a special certification and a nail bag. Many of the students plan to pursue their education in this field after high school at either the two-year program at the College of Southern Idaho, or a four-year program at Boise State University or Brigham Young University-Idaho. With about 150 different careers in the residential construction industry, no wonder, when asked why he chose to be part of the academy, Juan Gomez answered, “It’s a good career choice.” Some of the students plan to enter a family construction or development business. At least one plans to be an architect, and wants to understand his craft from the inside out.
The strong link between the professional community and the academy fosters synergy and motivation. Local building professionals work side-by-side with academy students on construction projects, take time to talk to them in the classroom, and put the kids to work on their crews in the summer. Many are promoting additional programs that will produce qualified
individuals to enter the industry.
Tragically, Jim Woodyard died in the 2003 crash of his small aircraft, but his legacy lives on through his wife, Sue Woodyard. “These kids have found their niche. They have purpose,” she affirms. “It has rejuvenated their belief in education.”
Freelance writer Dana Yelda came to Sun Valley over 30 years ago for “one ski season.” Like so many local residents, she never got around to leaving. After building a home in Hailey and raising three children here, Dana now pursues her dream of a writing career.