The house that students built
- To: CA Resisters <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Subject: The house that students built
- From: George Sheridan <email@example.com>
- Date: Sun, 26 Jan 2003 09:55:12 -0800
- Cc: firstname.lastname@example.org
Following is the second major article recently praising a high-quality
educational program at Golden Sierra High School in the Black Oak Mine
Unified School District. (The first was "Mecca for the Arts" in the
Sacramento Bee.) Each article describes the school's success in terms of
student accomplishments and student attitudes. Neither article cites test
scores as a measure of program quality.
The house that students built
At 7 a.m., most students are just rolling out of bed. But at sunrise in the
outskirts of Garden Valley, 13 high school students are eagerly arriving
for class. Not one student complains about the freezing temperatures, the
quiz of the day or the hard work that awaits them. While they might not be
considered star students in the traditional sense of the word, these
students are shining examples of students who are enthusiastic and ready to
Their classroom, in this case, is an off-campus construction site, where
students are proudly finishing their class project. Under the direction of
Golden Sierra High School ROP construction teacher Larry Highberger, they
are building a three-bedroom, two-bath home for Habitat for Humanity, a
nonprofit organization dedicated to providing affordable housing to
families in need.
Highberger's students built the house from scratch in this small rural
community in the Sierra foothills. The students in the Regional
Occupational Program (ROP), ages 16 to 18, work on the construction site
Monday through Friday from 7 to 9:30 a.m., before attending regular high
school classes. Sometimes they work on weekends.
"They are learning skills that will help them enter the job market, and
they are getting a feeling of satisfaction from building a nice home for a
family in need," says Highberger. "They like the fact that they are helping
The partnership with Habitat for Humanity has led to jokes about the
program's high-profile supporter, former President Jimmy Carter. "Everyone
asks me if Jimmy's out here," says Highberger. "I've heard that 20 times. I
say that he hasn't shown up yet."
Every morning, the class begins with a quiz on construction dimensions and
safety rules. "I want to give them ownership of the numbers," says
Highberger. "For today's quiz, I'm giving them a diagram on framing and
asking them to do a layout of the stud locations - to scale. These are
important math skills."
After the quiz, the stillness of the early morning is shattered by
screeching heavy-metal music on the boom box, which is soon matched in
intensity by the sounds of hammering, drilling and sawing. Nobody seems to
mind the cold - at 24 degrees, the temperature is well below freezing.
The site is a beehive of activity. Students perch on ladders and nail beams
into place; others on the ground are connecting wires to electrical boxes,
heating roofing materials to put atop the pump house, carrying lumber and
busily attending to other aspects of construction. Students work
independently, for the most part, while Highberger makes the rounds to
ensure that everything is being done properly and within code.
When students ask him a question, he tends to answer them with a question.
"When this wire comes out, you have to put the staples how many inches
apart?" Or, "Where does it say in the Code that you can run wires?"
"I try to get them to think about the process rather than just giving them
answers," he says. "They retain information much better that way."
"Fifty percent of my students say they would not be attending high school,
if not for this class," says Highberger, a member of the Black Oak Mine
Teachers Association. "Today in schools, there is so much emphasis on
college prep. But most kids don't go on to college, and we have not
prepared them to be successful in other areas. It breaks my heart. They are
good kids; they just need guidance."
Mark Hall, 17, admits that he hasn't always been very interested in school.
"I don't like doing bookwork all day," says Hall. "I've gotten some bad
"I don't like being stuck behind a desk reading a book all day in school,"
adds Aaron Moore, 16. "I like this class because it's a good vacation from
the rest of school."
Because traditional book learning may not hold much appeal for many of
these students, Highberger sees his class as an opportunity to motivate
them to be successful in other ways - so they can become contributing
members of society.
"They are great kids who have made a huge commitment in building this
house. They are willing to work hard under difficult conditions while other
kids are in a warm classroom. I feel very fortunate and blessed to work
with these guys every day."
The students say they feel equally lucky to have the opportunity for
Building a house from scratch "has given me great experience," says Hall
proudly. "This class helps keep me interested in school. It keeps me
focused. I want to do well in my other classes just so I can stay in this
Students have set goals for themselves based on what they have learned
during the past year, and are eager to enter the job market, which is
desperately in need of skilled workers, says Highberger.
"I'm going to get a job after high school," says Victor Patterson, 17. "I
hope to own my own house before most of my friends get out of college. I'm
going to build it myself. I love this class."
Patterson plans on joining the electrical union and becoming an apprentice.
"They are looking for people right now," he says. "I'd start at $15.75 an
hour, then go up to $26 an hour as a journeyman."
"The stereotype of construction workers is pushing wheelbarrows and digging
ditches," says Highberger. "The big misconception is that anybody can do
it. But you have to be intelligent to go out and do this for a living. I'm
teaching at the level where kids can go out and get good jobs working on
construction crews or as carpenters."
For field trips, Highberger likes to take his students to visit the
construction sites of former students who have done well for themselves.
"I have kids who have graduated from this class and now are contractors
with their own companies. One of my former students has a
furniture-building business with hundreds of employees. Some of my students
are construction foremen. One of my graduates from 1992 is building
multimillion dollar homes in Lake Tahoe, making three times the money that
I am. It's very rewarding. It's awesome.
"I have letters from companies outside Sacramento saying they will take
every kid we can give them, offering them jobs with full benefits and
year-round work. How many teachers can say that?"
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