Kids learn building trade skills by doing, at YouthBuilders

Traditional high school settings don’t meet the needs of all students. See how this unique school gives young people skills – and pays them while they go to school …

Not your ordinary teachers, Carly Boynton (on the mini-track backhoe) and Bill Kowalczyk say their classrooms are at building sites like this one, on SE Schiller Street.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For many young people in outer East Portland, college is out of the question; for some, even getting a high school diploma seems like nearly unreachable goal. Without marketable skills, the future for these youth seems bleak.

“Our school, Portland YouthBuilders (PYB), is both a high school and a pre-apprenticeship program. All of our students are kids who dropped out of high school,” explained PYB’s construction manager, Bill Kowalczyk, as we visited him at his “classroom” – a house construction site in Lents.

“This program is an opportunity for them to change their lives by taking on the challenge of being successful academically – as well as preparing for the working world – when they complete our program,” Kowalczyk said.

Two-year school & work program
Portland YouthBuilders offers young people, ages 17 to 24, a two-year program. The first year is primarily in the classroom; then they work on a jobsite for 12 months. After that, the PYB staff provides follow-up mentoring, counseling and guidance services, guiding the students to whatever secondary education direction they choose.

“This program isn’t for a fixed period of time where they graduate from high school, and things are over and done,” Kowalczyk told us. “We look at training as a process. We develop the tools to help students develop incrementally, and move toward success.”

Molly Yong, Julia Vosmik, and Ryan Marr work to prepare the area inside the structure’s foundation, where the slab will be poured.

Learn and earn
Another unusual feature of the PYB program is that the students don’t pay for their specialized training; they actually get paid to participate.

“They don’t get paid wages,” Kowalczyk clarified, “they get paid a stipend to help them get through. A lot of our students already have children; some of them several children. Having a stipend means, for a lot of our students, the difference of being able to participate in this program or not. They’re really working hard to develop strategies to be successful in life.”

As many as 40 percent of these students will go directly into construction, the instructor said. Others will get a GED and go on to some form of secondary education. “We use a construction format as a means of teaching job-readiness skills, and teaching about the industries,” Kowalczyk went on.

Partner with ROSE and Land Trust
At the site of their current project on SE Schiller Street and SE 104th Avenue, the students poured the concrete footings for what will eventually be a two-story, four-bedroom home. Then, working with a professional concrete finisher, they poured the foundation and started framing the home.

PYB construction trainer Carly Boynton hopped down from the backhoe she was operating, and told us that she and the students have been working on this jobsite for about three months. “This project is a great opportunity for our students to work on an Energy Star certified house from foundation to finish.”

The home is being built for ROSE Community Development Corporation, and will be sold to a low-income buyer through the Portland Community Land Trust. The new house will be ready for a family to move into later this year, Boynton added.

Since we first reported this story, we revisited the site – the house is really taking shape!

Calls it a ‘life changing experience’
“For me, PYB is a life-changing experience,” said student Julia Vosmik. “It’s giving me a career and helping me change direction to where I want to go in life. It’s like the family you’ve never had.”

In addition to construction, PYB also offers a computer maintenance educational track.

If you know of a student who might qualify for the program and could be interested in checking out the program, contact Portland YouthBuilders in person at 4816 SE 92nd Avenue (a block south of SE Holgate Boulevard), or call (503) 771-2309. To visit their web site, CLICK HERE.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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