School district, Habitat for Humanity forge partnership

Students on the Kenai Peninsula will get a shot at some hands-on learning as soon as this summer, courtesy of a partnership between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Central Peninsula Habitat for Humanity.

The school district is hammering out the details of a program to get high school students working on a house being built through Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that constructs new homes for low-income families that currently live in unsafe or inadequate conditions. The students might be pre-fabricate parts of the house at the Kenai Central High School shop, called the Workforce Development Center, in the spring, or they could help to build the house on-site in the first few weeks of the school year in August.

The program would spring from the school district’s existing Career and Technical Education program, which provides vocational education classes for high school students in the district. The coordinators have ben looking for ways to get real-life experiences for the students, said John Pothast, the director of secondary education for the district.

“… We have a variety of programs where they build greenhouses or sheds, so they’re building real life things,” he said. “But … can we get some bigger experiences and maybe some more i-depth experiences? A shed, it’s a great project, but there’s only so much you can learn and it only lasts so long.”

Some of the classes offered through the district in its 2017–2018 school year include three levels of construction education. The first level is basic education, designed to teach the students the very basics of construction, Pothast said. From there, the second level becomes more complex, where the students build the structures like greenhouses and sheds, and the levels beyond that are additionally challenging, he said.

What started the conversation about a partnership with Habitat for Humanity was the availability of some public land. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved a resolution in October 2016 accepting the transfer of seven parcels of land from the now-dissolved Kenai Peninsula Building Authority to be managed for the benefit of the school district. Five of the parcels are located on a block near Kenai Central High School, across South Tinker Lane from the Oiler’s Baseball Field. The other two are located on Shelikof Street, just to the east of Kenai Central High School and Kenai Middle School.

With the land available, Pothast said he and other coordinators reached out to Habitat for Humanity’s coordinators to start the conversation about a partnership.

Bill Radtke, one of Central Peninsula Habitat for Humanity’s board members and a retired Kenai Peninsula Borough School District teacher himself, has been working on the arrangement with the school district for the nonprofit. He said it was a perfect fit and something he’d wanted to see happen for a long time.

“Hopefully every student will end up having a house and knowing how to take care of it, and when we bond with the school district, this will give them an opportunity to learn what goes into building a house from the framing to the electrical to the plumbing,” he said. “It’s a great fit for both of us. We’ll be getting some trained people in the community that can go into careers in the construction industry or just know how to change a wire in the house.”

There are still challenges to work out. For one, Habitat for Humanity’s main construction season is during the summer, when students are not in school. One approach the school district is considering is having some of the students in Construction 1 pre-fabricate many of the parts of the house in the Workforce Development Center in the spring, then the students in another level of the class will actually participate on the construction site when they return to school in August, Pothast said.

The Workforce Development Center is meant as a district-wide facility, and students do come from Soldotna High School and elsewhere in the district to participate there, Pothast said. The administrators have tried to adjust class times and lengths to make the commute practical for students who want to participate there, he said. However, for students in a place like Ninilchik, about 45 minutes outside Kenai, it may not always be easy or practical.

One of the programs in the past that has been able to bridge the availability of facilities is construction academies funded by the state. However, the funds — disbursed by the nonprofit Construction Education Foundation, a state grantee — did not contract with any school districts to provide that funding. Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget also proposes further cuts to the grants, which would result in the dissolution of the Construction Education Foundation, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was able to locate other sources of funds for the academies and was able to keep them going, Pothast said. They’re important for outlying areas, like the Russian Orthodox villages of Kachemak-Selo, Voznesenka and Razdolna to the east of Homer, where resources are more limited, he said.

The coordinators try to follow what the students there really want. For instance, welding is popular in the Russian Orthodox villages, but resources are limited. To help provide that opportunity, the school district is planning to adapt a shipping container that was used as an interim shop at the Susan B. English School in Seldovia while the school’s shop was being rebuilt into a mobile welding lab. The container already has most of the equipment necessary, and when it is converted, the school district can bring it closer to the village schools so the students there will get an opportunity to take part in welding classes, Pothast said.

“Really what we’re looking at when we talk about those academies, the biggest thing we look at is what is the desire? Welding is a very popular … that’s what the kids want,” he said. “That’s why down there, we’re going to commit to having a welding academy. And that could be very different when we’re talking about what the kids want.”

If all goes according to plan, the work for the Habitat for Humanity partnership will begin in the fourth quarter of this school year, Pothast said. As time goes on, the goal is to keep students engaged with the construction program in a practical way, which plays into the long-term vision of the vocational education program, he said.

“We educate kids for all avenues of what they want to do in their life,” he said. “Some kids are going to want to go to college, but some kids are going to want to go right into the workforce … Those kids who are trying to make a living, get jobs in the industry and in the trades, we need to prepare them for that.”

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