School district’s construction class teaches lifelong skills
By Marcy Stamper
In most high school construction classes, students assemble a garden shed or work on other small projects, but Methow Valley students are building and renovating structures used every day by local businesses, artists and fellow students.
Now in its third year, the Methow Valley School District’s expanded construction class — part of the Careers in Construction and Welding Academy — is working on a major retrofit for a building that will become a commercial kitchen.
The class introduces students to all phases of construction, including site preparation, utility infrastructure, framing and flooring. They also meet with clients, draw plans, and do specialized finish work, said Tori Karpenko, director of partnerships and operations at TwispWorks, who co-teaches the class with Trent Whatley, the school district’s design technology, construction and welding teacher.
“You can see that we started with nothing. That’s the neat thing about these classes — everything that happened here, we did,” said Whatley.
Students have run backhoes and other heavy equipment to dig trenches for sewer and electrical lines around the TwispWorks campus, where the construction academy is based. “The older kids drove the backhoe — that was kind of fun for them,” said Whatley.
For specialties that require licensed technicians, students observe electricians and plumbers and assist where possible.
Jed McMillan, a freshman in his first year in the class, has been working on concrete and framing. “I like working with my hands and seeing something you built yourself, that’s not made in China or something,” he said.
The collaboration with the school district began after meetings between Karpenko, former school district superintendent Mark Wenzel and former Liberty Bell construction teacher Bob Wilson. Wilson had always dreamed of starting a class that offered a real-world application of construction skills, said Karpenko.
The six students work in pairs, with the older, more experienced ones learning supervisory as well as construction skills.
“I never did construction on my own — just a shop class in school,” said senior Brendan Saling, who said he has developed critical thinking and on-the-job skills. As a supervisor, Saling said he needs an overall knowledge of the project and an ability to deal with any problems that arise.
While Saling likes understanding all the phases of construction, he particularly likes carpentry, which could become a career for him, he said.
Kaleb Martin, who has taken the class since it began, likes being in a supervisory role this year. “It’s nice being able to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained,” he said.
Martin has a lot of knowledge to pass on. He grew up around construction and has run a backhoe since he was about 10 years old. “I’m more into running heavy equipment than construction,” he said.
Freshman Carter Darwood said what he’s learned in class will be useful in his future, even though he also doesn’t plan to focus on construction — he would rather work with motors, he said.
This year, the construction class will also do minor structural renovations and finish work for the basement of the bunkhouse, the three-story building on the TwispWorks campus that now houses the Independent Learning Center and the Valley Teen Center.
Last year’s projects include a complete build-out for a 1,800-square-foot manufacturing facility for eqpd, more than doubling the space for the tote-bag business.
During the first year, students designed and constructed a deck and two roof awnings for another building on the TwispWorks campus that houses artist studios and event spaces, said Karpenko.
Over the past three years, the school has expanded the class, both in terms of the complexity of projects and the schedule. Increasing the class to a double period — three and a half hours twice a week, plus a shorter session on a third day — has enabled students to take projects from start to finish, said Whatley.
While the schedule gives students a sense of ownership, it presents a conflict for some students who can’t afford to devote two consecutive class periods, he said.
“I wish people could visualize what’s happened here. We started with an ugly old building,” said Whatley. “It’s amazing to me — kids are doing some really cool stuff.”