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Green Bay students bridge affordable housing gap

An out of the classroom program provides high school students with hands-on construction experience

By John McCracken

Green Bay West High School senior Zach Offield carries a ladder into the recently framed Irwin Street home. Offield is one of 10 students in this year’s Bridges program. John McCracken photo

Green Bay Area Public School (GBAPS) students are swapping iPads and notebooks for hammers and two-by-fours.

For the past nine years, Bridges Construction and Renovation Program has provided GBPAS high school students with the opportunity to receive hands-on experience building and renovating houses. In conjunction with NeighborWorks Green Bay, an affordable housing nonprofit, this years’ cohort of high school students are building a new single-story house and detached garage from the ground up at 331 S. Irwin Street.

Bridges Instructor Brian Frerk has decades of experience in construction, carpentry and home-building trades. Frerk said he decided to look into teaching students about the industry after his own children graduated and moved out of the house.

“I learned from my dad and my grandpa,” Frerk said. “A lot of these kids don’t have family members that are in the trades and they just don’t have those experiences.”

He said his time teaching high school students has been “awesome.”

“It’s the only class where you’re going to be able to drive by 50 years from now and show your kids ‘I built that when I was in high school,’” Frerk said.

Frerk said he has 10 students this year. In his four years teaching the GBAPS program, Frerk said students graduate with life skills and experience that can benefit them even if they don’t go into the trades. For those that do go into the trades, Frerk said students who graduate high school with construction experience are a hot commodity for regional employers.

“Last year all of my seniors had jobs in the construction industry before graduation,” Frerk said.

Frerk said his program has been affected by COVID-19 related supply chain issues like a lot of ongoing construction and development projects. Despite the delay, this semester’s students didn’t stop building.

“While we were waiting we reroofed two buildings at West High School,” Frerk said.

Green Bay West senior Zach Offield said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school and the out-of-the-classroom approach interested him.

Bridges Instructor Brian Frerk (left) provides GBAPS students with first-hand construction experience. John McCracken photo

“Just to be able to come out here and work on a house with a few guys for three hours a day, it’s been really fun,” Offield said. “I’ve been learning a lot of stuff that I’ve never really thought about before.”

Offield said since being in the class he’s considered going into a trade and has family members in the trades as well.

“It’s kind of open my eyes that I do enjoy putting my hands on working instead of just being in a classroom setting,” Offield said.

The single-story house Bridges students are currently working on will be made available to a low-income family when the last nails and shingles are placed.

Affordable housing is an ongoing area issue as a Green Bay Housing Market Study—commissioned by the city and released in 2020—cites a need for at least 375 new, single-family homes and 310 apartment units in Brown County per year for the next 20 years to keep up with the city’s aging housing stock and increased demand for housing. Standing inside the guts of a future affordable home, Frerk said everyone involved benefits from the class.

“It’s a win-win,” Frerk said. “The community gets more housing.”

John McCracken is the Editor of Green Bay City Pages. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @jmcjmc451.

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