Construction site classroom

Ford Fund supports high school STEAM learning, housing for homeless vets

When Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin (VOW) built 13 tiny homes for homeless veterans in the state, there was an added benefit. Area teens got to put skills they learned in the classroom to use in the real-world.

Jayden Callis, a junior at Jerome I. Case High School in Racine, Wis., not only found satisfaction in supporting the cause because he has an uncle in the U.S. Army but also because he earned basic skills helping to build the 128-square foot homes.

“I learned how to frame. I learned how to use hand tools and how to shingle,” says Callis, who wants to pursue residential or big commercial building as a career. “A lot of these skills can help my community.”

Supporting skilled trades

Ford Motor Company has long believed that education is the engine that drives individual and community success. When students can make tangible connections between the classroom and the community, real innovation is often the result. Helping communities develop career-themed academies that integrate classroom learning with real-world jobs is the mission of Ford Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL).

Pairing the success of Ford NGL with the already impactful Ford Community College Challenge, Ford Fund established a new initiative in 2015: The Ford STEAM High School Community Challenge. This program encourages students at Ford NGL academies to partner with nonprofits to design innovative projects that address the critical needs of their communities. Students who win the challenge receive funding support from Ford to implement their solutions.

Students installing insulation.
Ford Next Generation Learning students used about 40 class hours to help build a tiny home. Photograph courtesy Jerome I. Case High School

James Ricchio, who teaches building home maintenance at Case High, calls Ford NGL “a motivator.”

“We’re working in skilled trades and technology education,” Ricchio says. “It’s nice to have support in an academy system where we can have cross-curricular teaching and tie in a math class or a science class. Those helps us collaborate with other teachers and help us get more meat out of the material.”

When Case High School won $5,000 in the 2015 STEAM challenge, Ricchio and carpentry teacher Ron Haisler, a member of the Southeast Wisconsin Carpenters Union, jumped on the chance to invest in VOW’s tiny-home venture. They say, veterans provide Americans with the freedom to get an education.

“Ford Motor Company Fund's investment in Ford NGL was made to help prepare students for college, career and life,” says Cheryl Carrier, Executive Director of Ford NGL. “Through real-world projects in their community — in this case, building tiny homes for veterans — students are learning their academics in an authentic way, honing critical workplace skills necessary for success and playing a major role in supporting their community."

From classroom to construction site

About 40, mostly upperclassman students from Case High helped build the 13 VOW homes.

Students building tiny house frame.
Students gain confidence as they employ their home-building skills. Photograph courtesy Jerome I. Case High School

“Countrywide, we have such a high demand for people working in skilled trades,” says Ricchio. “We are trying to meet the needs of our community, and it will have a global impact to have these skills.”

Ricchio adds, students can apply what they learn on the construction sites later in their careers. He also believes that seeing a finished project can give students a sense of completion.

Carson Krenzke, a sophomore, appreciates not only the hands-on training, such as using power tools and laying out building structures, but also how to work with teammates to get a task done.

“It’s a vital skill I plan to use down the road,” he says.

“(Students now) are confident they can do some electrical wiring and flooring,” Ricchio adds. “Those skills are invaluable. We’re going to have some people who are self-sufficient and very capable in problem solving.”

Exterior view of students building tiny house.
Ford NGL students learn soft skills, such as communication, that can keep them safe on a potentially dangerous job. Photograph courtesy Jerome I. Case High School

Lance McDonald, a high school junior who wants to go into small home and commercial building one day, learned valuable safety lessons on a scaffold and roof along with communication skills, which he calls “super important” for safety.

“If you need to do something or need to give a warning, it can help not cause an injury,” says McDonald.

Allowing students to use real skills is always the best approach, says Haisler, who adds: “You show the students how to do it, back off and let them do it. It’s really exciting to see the lightbulb go off, and they are able to teach other kids.”

With the help of the Southeast Wisconsin Carpenters Union, Haisler says high schoolers with these skills can take a full year off their apprenticeships and get raises before they even start work. “You’ll have a 19-year-old making close to $45,000 in a 40-hour work week,” he says. “You can’t beat the boost and sense of community hands-on learning gives them.”

Two female students aligning wood for cutting.
Jerome I. Case High School students in Racine, Wis. learn skills they can use in future careers. Photograph courtesy Jerome I. Case High School

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