New high school program integrates construction into core classes

When the 30 students enrolled in the Construction Career Academy at a high school in Chattanooga, Tenn., go to English class, chances are they aren’t reading Shakespeare.

Instead they learn things like how to communicate on a jobsite, create a resume, run a meeting or make a presentation. They use a construction dictionary and read and write construction-oriented material.

The students’ math classes also revolve around real problems encountered at construction sites. And this is in addition to the academy’s carpentry and masonry classes.

“If the kids are doing a geometry problem, we put together a jobsite situation to illustrate that concept,” said John Heffner, executive director of training and education services for the Associated General Contractors of America, which helped start the program.

Juniors and seniors at East Ridge High School are enrolled in the Construction Career Academy this school year – the first for the pilot program – but the school intends to add sophomores next year and freshmen the year after that. Program supporters also hope to add one construction-based core curriculum course per year. For example, math and English follow a construction model this year, but the school will add science next year, Heffner said. The academy also plans to expand the program to offer electrical training and other trades.

The academy prepares students for entry-level careers, apprenticeships or higher education.

Local contractors are working with teachers to develop course material, and sometimes they even help teach classes. Heffner said he’s sure AGC members will hire all this year’s seniors who plan to enter the workforce after graduation.

The program got started a year ahead of schedule when the Carnegie Society for New Schools program gave Hamilton County schools an $8 million grant to implement high school reform in all 17 of its schools. AGC of East Tennessee, which was looking for ways to combat the dwindling skilled workforce, helped launch the program.

Heffner said AGC researched the concept of a construction career academy for two years before it became a reality at East Ridge High. Still, starting the program early meant AGC, local contractors and teachers had to scramble to put together the program’s curriculum a year in advance. The group used published guides for similar high school programs and workshops where construction industry professionals collaborated with teachers to come up with curriculum guides.

Teachers and contractors also meet throughout the school year for workshops.

“We’re learning as we go, too,” Heffner said.

A second construction career academy is set to open next school year in San Antonio, Texas. Heffner said schools in other areas of the country have expressed interest in starting programs as well.

AGC hopes to develop and refine the curriculum for the academies and put that information on the Internet so anyone interested in starting a program will be able to access it, Heffner said.

Contractors interested in starting an academy in their area can contact AGC, which has resources to help them. Heffner can be reached at 703-837-5333 or via e-mail at heffnerj@agc.org.