GRPS Academy of Design & Construction students stayed warm while working on a Habitat for Humanity house courtesy of gear provided by partner Wolverine Worldwide. Photo by Michael Buck
Earlier this winter, Gideon Sanders watched as students loaded into buses wearing sweatshirts, baseball caps and sneakers.
The Grand Rapids Public Schools director of innovative strategies didn’t like what he saw.
The students were from GRPS Academy of Design & Construction and were heading to a Habitat for Humanity project where they would learn hands-on skills.
“I thought about (how) … that could not be safe with the temperatures the way they were,” Sanders said. “Yet, they went merrily to the worksite without any complaints.”
Sanders thought about it for a bit and then pulled an ace from his back pocket. A prior meeting with Carrie Hill, a product developer at Wolverine Worldwide, sparked an idea, and soon the students were outfitted with more than $8,000 worth of gear.
“They set us up with the head-to-toe package,” Sanders said. “Now the kids no longer have to focus on finding a spot in the house for warmth; they can focus on learning.”
Instead of huddling in the heated basement of the house, the students can work comfortably, even in the cold polar vortices that have settled on the Midwest of late. New jackets — complete with the Academy of Design & Construction logo — boots, gloves, hats and socks were provided by Wolverine.
The academy is in its fifth year but its first at the school system’s Innovation Central High School — previously Central High School. Other academies at the school include the Academy of Health Science and Technology; the Academy of Business, Leadership & Entrepreneurship; and the Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program (GRAPCEP) Engineering & Biomedical School.
The Academy of Design & Construction now has more than 100 students, the majority being sophomores and freshmen.
“This program is building,” said Mark Frost, principal of Innovation Central. “It’s getting bigger and better.”
The Innovation Central academies pair with area businesses and colleges, including Spectrum Health and Davenport University, to help students further their education and become career-ready more quickly. Some students graduate with certifications that will help them find better-paying jobs to help pay their way through college.
Frost said the Academy of Design & Construction helps students get ready for college, but it also helps them specialize in careers that don’t necessarily need further schooling.
“The school allows any student to get into a trade immediately,” he said. “That is what some of our advisors advocate; they advocate they get right into the work force. There’s a need right now as the housing market comes back.
“There’s a need to get these kids to fill the jobs, and they have the skills to do it.”
The underclassmen in the program take courses to learn both the design and building portions of construction projects. As they near their junior years, the students are allowed to branch off and specialize in their area of choice.
During the morning, students are in traditional classrooms and learn in a setting not all that different from a conventional high school. Specialized courses include blueprint reading, construction drawings, building laws, interior design, building and methods of construction and more.
In the afternoon, the students head off to work two hours at a Habitat for Humanity house. The students generally work from late-September to the end of the school year on a project. This year’s house is next to last year’s in the Black Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids.
The current house is a renovation but previous years have seen the students help build a house from the ground up. Throughout the project, the students work with teachers and professionals from construction and architecture firms from the area.
Paired with the Design & Construction Academy, among others, are Rockford Construction, Triangle Associates, Progressive AE, The Christman Co., Michigan State University, Ferris State University and Grand Rapids Community College.
Each student is assigned a professional mentor at the beginning of his or her freshman year and stays with that mentor throughout high school.
“(The mentors) come in and meet monthly,” Frost said. “The kids really value it, and it provides a lot of special education. They bring expertise; they bring the know-how and the realistic view of the workplace.”
Frost said the mentorship program has been so successful in its short history that the school system is implementing it throughout its innovation programs.
The Design & Construction program brings several outcomes one doesn’t normally see in high schools, said Wolverine’s Hill.
“It’s outstanding, a great program. To have something (like constructing a house) come out of it is a whole different thing,” she said.
“Wolverine brand is a work boot. It’s a great marriage, and we don’t take it lightly. Community brings harmony.”