Green Bay students gain experience, career skills in yearlong construction program
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – For approximately seven years, students involved in the Green Bay School District’s Bridges Construction and Renovation program have had the opportunity to learn hands-on, real-life skills while earning both high school and technical college credit.
“The Bridges program is a work-based learning program in which the students actually get hands-on experience building a home or, in my other class, renovating a home,” Brian Frerk, instructor of the Bridges Construction and Renovation program, said. “They get dual credit – so they get credit for the class at the high school level, as well as credit for classes at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) toward the carpentry program.”
Little by little, Frerk, who began in the role four years ago, said interest in the program has grown, prompting continued expansion.
“I had about, I think, seven students my first year,” he said.
Frerk said when interest began to grow, he added a renovations class to help accommodate more students.
“I cap out at 12 (in the class),” he said. “I had too many (interested in the new construction class), so we decided to add a renovation section. So we did that last year and again this year.”
Frerk said the interest has continued to grow – prompting the program to expand yet again next year.
“I’ve got about 34-35 right now, something like that,” he said. “We needed to add a third section. So next year, we’re going to build two new houses, and renovate a third house again.”
New homes will be built on Irwin Street near East High School, and on 4th Street off South Broadway.
Frerk said the renovation project is tentatively set for a home on Oakland Street.
“But that could be subject to change,” he said.
The program is in partnership with NeighborWorks Green Bay.
“They select the projects for us, they provide all the funding,” Frerk said. “They’re the general contractor. They get the permits and all those sorts of things. School districts are not in the business of building houses, so we have to rely on partners like NeighborWorks to help us with that.”
Students enrolled in next year’s program are from East, Preble, West and John Dewey Academy of Learning.
“The majority of the kids drive themselves as they have their own transportation,” Frerk said. “However, there is school transportation available if needed,” he said.
Frerk said the class works around travel time to and from school.
“We have what’s called an advisory period, which is kind of like a homeroom period.” Frerk said. “So next year, the renovation students will be onsite for first and second hour, and then they’ll travel during that advisory period. Then students for third, fourth and fifth hour will travel during that advisory, and then they’ll come to the job site. And then six hour (travel time) would be their lunch, so they’re not missing an hour of school. So, we spend about 90% of the class time actually on site.”
Frerk said the new construction class is with him for three hours a day – building a new house from the ground up.
“Basement goes in for us, and then we do all the framing, drywall, interior finishes, carpentry, that kind of stuff, as well as siding and roofing, and we build a detached garage for the home as well,” he said. “And then in my renovation class, we renovated an older structure this year. We were working on a house on Van Buren street that was built in 1919.”
Frerk said students worked on the home’s new trim/siding, replaced windows and doors, worked on drywall/plaster, moved walls, built a new front porch, practiced finished carpentry and restored some original features of the home.
Frerk began teaching after leaving the construction industry himself.
“I started teaching at 50,” he said. “So this is my second career. My wife (a district employee) convinced me to come teach after I was kind of looking to semi-retire. She convinced me to come teach.”
Though Frerk said what drives him even more is the shortage of young people in the construction trades.
“The average age right now of the carpenters, at least the last I saw, was 51 years old,” he said. “So, there aren’t very many young people in the trades, and the older generation is looking to retire soon. So we’re going to come to a critical shortage – there already is a shortage, but it’s going to become more critical. So, what I want to do is show these students that there’s another alternative for a great career besides going to college.”
Frerk said many of his students go directly into the industry after high school.
“Many of my students go directly into industry,” he said.
“I have many local contractors in larger companies that are looking to hire my students directly out of the program,” he said. “Some of the students go on to NWTC into the carpentry program, and then out to work. And some of them just want to do it for the experience. They want to do something with their hands, that’s not sitting in a traditional classroom. Some of them hope to own homes at some point in the future and would like to be able to do projects around the house.”
Frerk said he has also had students from his class go onto four-year schools and become architects and construction managers.
“So, I have a wide variety, but the programs that I have welcome all of those,” he said. “But the program was really put together by partners within the local construction industry that saw the shortage of people and tried to find a way to encourage more young people to go into the construction trades.”
Frerk said over the years, the program has also seen a growth in interest from girls.
“Three of the last four years, I’ve had one girl in each,” he said. ”This year, I had nine girls apply. We’ve worked hard to get more young girls into more tech ed classes in general. What’s really exciting is that about a third of the students next year will be girls. (Of that), about one-third are in the renovation class and two-thirds are in the new construction class. So, there is pretty equal representation throughout the classes with girls next year.
Interim Superintendent Vicki Bayer said the district is proud to be able to offer students a program that allow hands-on learning opportunities while earning high school and college credit.
“Beyond skills building, our students are making a positive impact on their local community by building and renovating safe and affordable housing in partnership with NeighborWorks Green Bay,” Bayer said.