Green Bay students gain work experience and skills through year-long construction program
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY — For approximately seven years, students involved in the Green Bay School District’s Bridge Building and Renovation Program have had the opportunity to learn practical, hands-on skills while earning high school credits and techniques.
“The Bridges program is a work-based learning program where students get hands-on experience building a house or, in my other class, renovating a house,” said Brian Frerk, instructor of the Bridges Construction and Renovation program. “They get double credit – so they get credit for the high school class, as well as credit for the courses at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) toward the carpentry program.”
Gradually, Frerk, who took office four years ago, said interest in the program has grown, leading to continued expansion.
“I had about, I think, seven freshmen,” he said.
Frerk said when interest started to grow, he added a renovation class to help accommodate more students.
“I max 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 it last year and again this year.
Frerk said interest has continued to grow, prompting the program to expand again next year.
“I’m about 34-35 right now, something like that,” he said. “We needed to add a third section. So next year we will 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. “He’s the general contractor. They get permits and all that sort of thing. School districts don’t build homes, so we have to rely on partners like NeighborWorks to help us with this task.
Students enrolled in next year’s program come from East, Preble, West and John Dewey Academy of Learning.
“The majority of kids drive themselves because they have their own transportation,” Frerk said. “However, there is school transport available if needed,” he said.
Frerk said the class operates around travel time to and from school.
“We have what’s called a counseling period, which is a bit like a class period.” Frerk said. “So next year, the renovation students will be on site for the first and second hours, and then they will travel during this consultation period. Then the third, fourth and fifth hour students will travel during this notice and then they will come to the construction site. And then six hours (travel time) would be their lunch, so they don’t miss an hour of school. So we spend about 90% of the class time on site.
Frerk said the new construction class was with him for three hours a day – building a new house from scratch.
“We’re fine with the basement, and then we do all the framing, drywall, interior finishes, carpentry, that sort of thing, and siding and roofing, and we’re also building a detached garage for the house” , did he declare. “And then in my renovation course, we renovated an older structure this year. We were working on a house in Rue Van Buren which was built in 1919.”
Frerk said the students worked on the house’s new trim/sidings, replaced windows and doors, worked on the drywall/plaster, moved the walls, built a new porch, did the finished carpentry, and restored some original features of the house.
Frerk started teaching after leaving the construction industry himself.
“I started teaching at 50,” he said. “So this is my second career. My wife (a district worker) convinced me to come teach as I was looking to semi-retire. She convinced me to come teach.
Although Frerk said what motivates him even more is the shortage of young people in the construction trades.
“The current average age of carpenters, at least the last I saw, was 51,” he said. “So there aren’t a lot of young people in the trades, and the older generation is planning to retire soon. We will therefore arrive at a critical shortage – there is already a shortage, but it will become more critical. So what I want to do is show these students that there is another alternative for a great career besides going to university.
Frerk said many of his students go straight into the industry after high school.
“A lot of my students go straight into industry,” he said.
“I have many local entrepreneurs at large corporations looking to hire my students directly outside of the program,” he said. “Some of the students go to NWTC in the carpentry program and then 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 houses at some point in the future and would like to be able to do projects around the house.
Frerk said he also sent students from his class to four-year schools and become architects and building managers.
“So I have a wide variety, but the programs I have accommodate all of those,” he said. “But the program was really put together by partners in the local construction industry who saw the labor shortage and tried to find a way to encourage more young people to get into the construction trades.”
Frerk said that over the years the program has also seen a growth in interest from girls.
“Three of the last four years I’ve had a girl in each,” he said. “This year, I had nine girls who applied. We have worked hard to bring more young girls into more technical classes in general. What’s really exciting is that around a third of the students next year will be girls. (Of this number), about one-third are in the renovation class and two-thirds are in the new construction class. So there’s a fairly equal representation across all classes with girls next year.
Acting Superintendent Vicki Bayer said the district is proud to be able to offer students a program that provides hands-on learning opportunities while earning high school and college credits.
“Beyond building skills, our students are positively impacting their local community by building and renovating safe and affordable housing in partnership with NeighborWorks Green Bay,” Bayer said.