BVHS students build houses, skills
January 3, 2010
By Jay Bullock
Mark Bajurny has 20 years of reasons why he should be bragging, but he doesn’t talk much about his success.
A humble, no-nonsense teacher, Bajurny started and runs the construction program at Bay View High School, which teaches students real-world, home-building skills and has been responsible for the rehabilitation or construction of 11 Milwaukee houses in the last two decades.
The current project, a house built from the ground up at S. Ninth Place and Cleveland Avenue two miles from the high school, is nearly finished. Students have been working on it since 2006.
It’s the fourth from-scratch house Bajurny and his students have built. “I don’t want to do rehabs anymore,” he said tersely, explaining that they can be more difficult. The first seven projects his students completed were existing houses that needed renovation.
Bajurny began the program with seed money from donors, he said, but since then, it has been self-funded. “All our houses have made a profit, except the last one,” he said, adding they did not lose much on that house.
Learning by Doing
The four-year program takes students through all the skills they need before they go on site in their junior and senior years. Senior Bay View High School student Peter Schutten explained that in the earlier years, students learn everything from carpentry skills to electrical basics and even a little plumbing. Other students added that before students work on the full-size house, they build model houses and practice framing in shops at school.
Throughout the construction program, students are encouraged to apply what they learn and how they learn to their other classes, and often find their grades higher than those of other students who are not a part of the program. Some students who discover they enjoy construction end up translating their energy to other coursework.
“It’s easy to get good grades in here and it makes me want to get good grades everywhere else,” said senior Josh Usadel of the construction classes.
Added Schutten, “We have an advantage because we are learning this, and everyone else is just doing bookwork. We’re doing something active.”
The active nature of the program is true for all grades, not just the older students on the job site. One of the motivating factors behind the decision to accelerate Fritsche Middle School’s move into the Bay View building next fall is the expense of busing ninth grade Bay View students, currently housed at Fritsche, to the high school to use the construction program’s shops and labs.
This year the expense seems worthwhile, though, to keep the younger students active in the program.
In fact, the efforts of freshman construction and engineering teacher Brian Debelak, who travels between the two schools daily with his students, earned an award from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The Education Leadership Award for excellence in technology and engineering was presented to Bay View Dec. 3 by Brent Kindred, DPI’s technology and engineering education consultant.
Building on Strengths
The two schools’ impending merger, along with the success of Bay View’s construction program and Fritsche’s Project Lead the Way program, has led to the creation of what’s being called the BAT Academy-BAT standing for Building, Architecture, and Technology.
Project Lead the Way is a nationwide science, technology, engineering, and math program developed for middle and high school students. Nearly $1 million of the funds received by the Milwaukee Public Schools from the 2009 federal stimulus package have been allocated to build construction and engineering labs in the high school for expansion of Project Lead the Way to all grades, 6-12, when the schools merge, according to district budget documents.
The BAT academy has also drawn sponsorship from the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee, and has formed an advisory board with members from local trade unions, architecture firms, construction firms, and universities including Marquette and MATC. The BAT academy held a successful fair in October showing off the program to students from nearby elementary schools, with a second fair planned for April 20.
Such investment and growing visibility position the BAT Academy and the construction program to become gems of the new Bay View Middle and High School, according Bay View Principal Robin Kitzrow in public statements about the blended school. And students believe that more attention to the program is a good thing.
Senior Alicia Benford, one of few girls participating in the program, believed the community might have a different opinion of Bay View students than they do now if they knew more about the construction program.
“They think we don’t do anything, just run around and start fights,” she said. “But if they see that we build houses for the community, and sell them back to the community, they’d see we’re building up their community even though they don’t want us here.”
Schutten expressed a similar perspective. “People usually look at Bay View like it’s a bad school. People don’t know what we do here with the construction program. We’re trying to help better our lives and be successful.”
Mark Bajurny estimates that about 400 students have gone through the construction program since its inception. Though he does not keep in touch with most of the graduates, he does know some are working in the trades, many doing non-union work. One even manages a local Home Depot.
By placing students in a working environment outside the classroom, the program encourages students to think beyond graduation.
Benford expresses post-graduation plans, though not necessarily in building. “I want to do construction,” she said, “but I also want to do culinary arts or fashion design.” She plans to apply both to Milwaukee Area Technical College and the Art Institute of Chicago this spring.
Schutten does plan to enter the trades, following in the path of his brother, also a graduate of Bay View’s construction program. “My brother went here for four years, and went into the carpenters union,” he said. “I plan on starting my own carpentry business.”
And teacher Bajurny plans to keep on quietly doing what he’s been doing. He’s currently in search of another nearby vacant lot so Bay View High School students can start building house number 12.
Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View High School who blogs at folkbum.com.
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