916 Career Tech takes shop class to the next level

The city of North St. Paul in partnership with Northeast Metro 916 are building a home at 2341 14th Ave. near Tower Park. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Using a Sawzall, Reid from North High, and other students are going through a checklist room by room at the 916 house. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

North High student Mike works the table saw, alternating with Luke of Roseville, while students in the Construction Occupations Program work on another 916 house in North St. Paul. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

High school students learn hands-on while building a house


Northeast Metro 916 Career & Technical Center’s construction occupations class is not like any shop class students might otherwise take in high school. In this class about 40 high school students work together to build a house from the ground up in a single school year.

 “There is no better collaboration that I’ve seen ever,” says 916 Career Tech principal Jill Stewart-Kellar. 

Instructor Tom Spehn adds, “The students who take my class typically are the hands-on learners, so a lot of students might not have a lot of success in the typical classroom setting that has you sit behind a desk for an hour and memorize theory. Here they actually apply it.”

“I like to do work with my hands mostly,” says North senior Reid Olson who was drawn to the program because of his interest in construction. He is especially excited to see how all the individual pieces of the project come together as a whole.

During the 2015-2016 school year, the students are building a single-family home at 2341 14th Ave. E., North St. Paul.


Learning a trade


The career technical center is part of Intermediate School District 916 and offers classes that high school students do not have access to within their regular school district. 

In the case of this program, students from 14 area school districts have opportunities to earn high school and college credits for classes in construction occupations.

The 916 Career Tech students are doing most of the labor on the 14th Avenue house, with the exception of the plumbing and electrical wiring, which are contracted to professionals.

Century College’s interior design students select the paint colors and design the cabinetry. Students from St. Paul College build the cabinets, and the city of North St. Paul provides the land for the project.

Depending on the school the students come from, they may drive their personal cars to the construction site or take a school bus. 

Because this year’s project is so close to North High School, the students who attend North are able to walk to and from the jobsite.

This class does require some meetings in a classroom in addition to meetings on the build-site. The curriculum includes 13 units beginning with safety and then working through each stage of the building process. 

When the group begins a new unit they typically start in the classroom to prepare for their work on site. For example, when the students were learning how to properly use power equipment, they began by watching videos. Then on the job site they each had a chance to practice using the tools with supervision.

In winter months, sub-zero temperatures can send the students back to the classroom. Spehn holds the students accountable for checking their email or the student phone line for information on the day’s meeting location. In general, he tries to do things the way they would be done in the construction field in order to better prepare students for those careers.

He says this mindset is carried through to the division of labor. In the construction field, workers often complete tasks in small groups, so the students are divided into crews of four, and each crew is given a specific project to work on from start to finish. 

Spehn prefers using small groups because it allows every student to work hands-on instead of the majority of the students watching while he and one student complete the task.

“You get to really know your classmates, so it’s a lot of teamwork that goes into it,” says Mahtomedi senior Bailey Scott.

So far, Scott and North senior Mike Pickar think working on the roof has been the most exciting part of the house construction. 

Mahtomedi senior Bennet Wallerstedt says his favorite task was putting the studs in the walls and then placing the walls upright.

“We had to cut them just perfectly. It had to do with precision, and how close we had to be to the mark so we didn’t mess up,” Wallerstedt says.

After a number of tasks are completed, Spehn employs a checklist system to ensure each area has been completed and meets every requirement. For example, a checklist may require a student to verify door dimensions from the plan to the actual dimensions. Sometimes there are items on the checklist that are not applicable to a room, such as an attic access. This gives Spehn the opportunity to show those students an attic access in another area of the house, and explain why it was not used in the room they were inspecting. 


Community investment


North St. Paul city manager Jason Zeimer says the program not only benefits the students, but the city, too. It improves the town’s housing stock and helps stabilize neighborhoods.

 Ziemer says the program gives the city a chance to tear down dilapidated houses and replace them with quality new ones. Or, in the case of last year’s student project, transform a foreclosed duplex into a modern single-family home with a three-car garage. 

The 14th Avenue property was originally a large lot with a tiny house on it, but after the city bought it in 2014, it was divided into two lots.

“Reinvesting in our neighborhoods and stabilizing property values is the key,” Ziemer says. He adds it’s especially important since roughly 90 percent of the community is residential.

North St. Paul begins the process by locating and eventually purchasing a home considered beyond repair. Then the city has the existing structure demolished and the site cleaned up before Spehn begins working with his students at the beginning of the school year.

The class aims to wrap up the project the first or second week of June, so the students can see it completed before classes dismiss for the summer.


Design considerations


After several years of teaching this class, Spehn has developed a few standard house plans that offer different options for different lots, but it is important to make these plans blend into the other dwellings on the block.

“A lot of times we go up and down the street and we start taking a look at existing homes, and what they look like,” Spehn says. “When we are looking at a neighborhood like this one, it was pretty tough because as you go down on 14th some of it has been updated and some hasn’t.”

“That’s one of the things that we struggle with the most. We have a lot of eclectic neighborhoods,” Ziemer says. Making the new house blend with the existing homes is something Ziemer and Spehn are conscious of and strive for.

“Even though we’re building today what might fit into the neighborhood, if these other homes remodel in the next 10 years, are we going to have to be the house that they have to match?” Spehn says.

The original 14th Avenue house was built in 1941. It was 624 square feet with two bedrooms, one bathroom and a detached one-car garage. The energy-efficient new house will have 2,000 square feet finished, three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms and an attached two-car garage.

Some noteworthy features include large windows for natural lighting and a cleverly placed computer room.

“A lot of parents like the fact that we put the computer room right [outside] their bedroom, because then they can monitor their kids and use the excuse that they are going to the bedroom,” says Roseville Area High School senior Luke Nelson.


Student growth


“I think that [the program does] a good thing building houses for people, especially when they redo a house that was beaten up or something. It just brings the house back to the neighborhood,” Pickar says.

He adds that he has been able to help out around his family’s home using the skills he’s acquired in the construction occupations class. Aside from the technical skills, he feels this program taught him how to accomplish tasks both individually and as a team. 

Acquiring building skills may lead to a career for some students, while for others it may help them be better homeowners in the future. 


Aundrea Kinney can be reached at akinney@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7822.


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