Quality craftmanship taught in apprentices' school

It is a school with its eye focused clearly on the 21st century - while it keeps a 19th-century apprenticeship tradition firmly in place. Situated on the street from which it takes its name, North Bennet Street School blurs into the mass of crowded brick and cobblestone that makes up Boston's North End.

But inside, there's a sense of purpose that contrasts sharply with the unorchestrated hubbub of the North End's narrow streets. And the activity illustrates perfectly the school's aim of teaching students to work not only with their heads, but with their hands.

The North Bennet Street School began a century ago as an institution that provided both technical skills and social services to many of the immigrants that crowded the North End. Founder Pauline Agassiz Shaw, an educator who was instrumental in setting up many social services for immigrants, wished to assist them in developing skills so they could begin to move into the mainstream of American life.

Today, the school still maintains a social-service division, as a United Way agency, which caters to North End residents. It also offers some other programs in conjunction with the North End Union. But two-thirds of the budget goes to the private trade school with which it is generally associated.

The school is a practical, hands-on place for its 145 men and women students of all ages and backgrounds, from retired Air Force pilots to professional ski racers to recent high school graduates. Most students have worked for five or more years before enrolling.

From the moment one steps through the thick oak door at the entrance - which was built by a student in preparation for the school's centennial in 1985 - one sees students actively engaged in their work. And while the school is upgrading its facilities to accommodate the handicapped and offer better tools in some areas, the feeling of 19th-century apprenticeship still pervades its halls.

''All of the learning is done around the particular projects in the curriculum,'' Tim Williams, the executive director, points out. ''And if someone doesn't do something well, he keeps doing it. He has to practice, and understand what good craftsmanship is - and then work at that level.''

On the building's ground floor, aspiring carpenters sit perched on the roof of a house constructed within the workshop, listening to a few tips from their instructor. Stairs are built that lead nowhere; endless nails are driven into a block for practice.

Farther along, a small number of students practices putting locks into doors. Above them, others troubleshoot faulty cameras. In one workshop, students bend quietly over the hundreds of tiny pieces of a watch.

Jewelry students work at their benches. Piano students practice tuning, repairing, and refinishing their instruments. And on the top floor, amid full-scale technical drawings and the strong smell of varnish, woodworkers perfect the detail that is so crucial to reproducing a fine piece of furniture.

Despite the lagging demand for certain tradesmen, such as watch repairers, the school has a placement rate of 84 percent, who are at work within two months of graduation. This success confirms the school's conviction that quality craftsmanship will maintain its value in the 21st century.

Julio Rosales, from Venezuela, who came originally to the US to study piano playing, not rebuilding, says he will now return home as one of only a couple of piano technicians in the entire country.

But Brent Karner, a recent high school graduate now planing a slant-top desk in the furniture section, knows it will be more difficult for him to make his way as a fine-furniture maker, and plans to work first with his father, whose kitchen-cabinet business he will take over someday.

The school also retains its 19th-century characteristics by an emphasis among all on the quality of their product, as well as the entrepreneurial nature of working in such trades.

''We clearly see ourselves as a school that perpetuates handcrafted, quality, custom work,'' asserts Mr. Williams, justifying the school's continued instruction in such trades as furniture making, as well as violin making, a three-year course that will start this fall.

And, he adds, echoing the school's master craftsman, ''We emphasize the fact that the true craftsman is one who works not only with his head and his hands, but with his heart as well.''

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