Educational Experience

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High school students build homes for class credit.

June 01, 1999

When school’s out this summer, students in Naperville, Ill., school districts 203 and 204 will have different mementos of their efforts. Some will have diplomas, some will have plaques and trophies, but the students in Ken Holland’s building trades course will have a whole house with which to remember their school year. Those students are building the house, from foundation to rooftop, while learning about the construction trade.

"The students get a chance to experience all the aspects of construction, and when they look back at the end of the year, they’ll have pride and job skills," says Holland. "This class is like a big chemistry lab, but it’s off site and working with other types of materials. Our primary goal is to let the students get experience and learn."

The course continues throughout the school year. Over the summer, Holland has the property surveyed, requests bids from dealers and contractors, and handles the paperwork. The first few days of class are spent in a classroom, going over the basics of construction and safety precautions. By the end of that first week, the students are out hammering nails.

This is the 28th house built by students at the Naperville school districts. Fifty-three juniors and seniors from the districts spend three two-hour classes each day working on the project. The students are building a 3,200-square-foot home complete with whirlpool bath, finished basement, ceramic tilework, stained-glass windows and an 8-foot suspended ceiling. Holland stands by his students' work, too. "We have to pass every inspection like any other builder, and if it’s not done well, we would have a hard time selling the house," he says. Although the home is expected to bring $375,000 to $400,000 after completion, profit is not the primary focus of the course.

During each phase of construction, the students work closely with subcontractors. They either work on or observe every aspect of building a home, from excavating the site to installing the heating and cooling systems to putting shingles on the roof. According to Holland, the purpose of such close instruction is to educate the students about every type of job opportunity in the construction and remodeling industries.

"I absolutely see this class as a vehicle for promoting construction," says Holland. Subcontractors enjoy working with and teaching the high school students, too, he says. "That’s the key I look for when choosing my subs," he says. "These contractors have been around a while, and they’re not just trying to do the work as fast as they can. It’s instructional."

Bob Gauger’s company, C. Gauger and Sons Heating and Air Conditioning in Naperville, has been involved on the Naperville schools’ project intermittently for about the past three decades, and he has seen the students involved on the project become interested in his trade as a result. "We’ve actually had a few former students come and look for employment here," he says. Although he couldn’t afford to hire them at the time, Gauger says he would have if it had been possible. "The candidates were very capable," he says. "They had promise and a good work ethic."

Gauger also asserts that the project is good for his employees. Every year he assigns a different crew with a different foreman to work on the class’s house. "It’s good for the foreman," he says. "It’s a variation on their job. They have to go and keep a number of people busy on the job, and it makes them re-evaluate things. It’s kind of interesting for them."

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