Construction Academy Gives More Options to Ward 7 High Schoolers

April 2014, students erect walls on the Academy of Construction and Design's 160 square-foot micro-house project in Northeast Washington

The fall 2015 school year is opening new doors to students at IDEA Public Charter School in Ward 7’s historic Deanwood neighborhood. Since its existence, IDEA has offered JROTC courses for students interested in pursuing a military track out of high school. Now students can learn trade skills from the Academy of Construction and Design, a career technical education (CTE) program sponsored by nonprofit DC Students Construction Trades Foundation.

Ten years ago the academy began offering courses to students at Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest DC. Focusing on the building industry, Habitat for Humanity became a significant program partner. “We helped to build 25 homes,” says the academy's director, Shelly Karriem. “To watch a high school student do this with their own hands [is amazing because] they don’t really get to see a lot of things go from idea to fruition.” 

After partnering with Habitat for over four years the academy transitioned to building its own homes. Most recently students helped build the exterior of a home in DC’s tiny house community in Northeast’s Stronghold neighborhood. “Now that we're at IDEA we're talking about towing it over here so students get to finish the interior,” says Karriem.

Preparing for Construction

Students are recruited for the program from middle schools in Wards 7 and 8. “Weexpected 70-75 and we ended up with over 100 ninth-graders,” says Karriem.

To get students prepared, ninth graders will take an introductory course in construction, while upperclassman will take level-one construction as well as architecture design. “In the years to come we’ll branch out and do specific trades whether it be carpentry, HVAC, or plumbing,” says Karriem. Students will also plan, create, and operate a youth farmers’ market to grow produce on the school’s campus and expand access to healthy food for themselves and Deanwood residents.

The academy’s partnership with workforce-preparation organization SkillsUSA will give  students access to enrichment programs that will expose them to workplace skills and resources to help them further prepare for life after high school.

Academically, students can connect their trades skills with traditional academics. “Whether it’s geometry and the angles of a roof or science and the life cycle of plants and animals, all of that is related and will help students have a passion for learning,” says Karriem.

The Importance of Providing Options

For IDEA’s head of school, Justin Rydstrom, adding the academy to its programming fits into the mission of providing a myriad of options for students after graduation. “There’s no charter school that I'm aware of other than IDEA that is really trying to prepare students for career as well as college,” says Rydstrom. “College has definitely taken over the charter sector even more so than DC Public Schools, which is hard to imagine. Our focus remains on both.”

Attending college and entering the workforce are not mutually exclusive, Rydstrom adds. “One path is to leave high school, work for a few years, save for college, and then have a little more money,” he says. Or students can start their own electrical company, then go to business school, he continues.

“I have a young lady who graduated [college with little debt] and ended up being a project manager,” says Karriem. “She just bought her first house at 23.” Rydstrom notes that “the ability for minority youth who grew up in the city to own property as adults is crucial in combatting changing demographics.” And even if they do not purchase homes, they can be empowered to control the housing market. “We would much rather our kids get into the [house] flipping business as opposed to it being something happening around them – this gentrification that they can’t control – when in fact these skills are not that difficult and there is an opportunity for them to be a part of it.”

Past graduates have also been able to take their skills overseas. “I have a young man who came here from war torn Sudan,” says Karriem. “When his father died he was responsible for all nine of his sisters and brothers and so he went back to Sudan. By that time they had split, and he was helping with the infrastructure of the new Sudan.”

Another student is now in Atlanta, Ga., and works as a screenwriter, she says. “As long as you are successful in your life then what we do here is successful. If you go into construction trades, kudos ... great, but if you don’t and you go off and you make yourself successful I’m ok with it,” she says.

In the end the goal is to offer pathways. “We have to stop pigeonholing our kids,” says Karriem. “We have to be able to make sure that they are tax-paying, law-abiding citizens who can provide for their families, and this is a way to do it.”  

Contact information
Shelly Karriem
Academy for Construction and Design
DC Students Construction Trades Foundation
Justin Rydstrom
IDEA Public Charter High School
1027 45th St. NE, Washington, DC 20019

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