If they build it ... they will learn

When Chester Steinhauser's GED students were struggling with fractions, the teacher at American YouthWorks Charter School in Austin hit on a solution: take them to a construction site.

Through observing a Habitat for Humanity house-building project, students were able to grasp first-hand how measuring and cutting lumber applied to math.

That led to the logical next step.

"My executive director said that as long as this is working so well, why don't you just build your own house?" says Mr. Steinhauser, who is now the school's program coordinator. "The next thing I know, he's got funding for this, and we do exactly that - we build a house with the members from the classroom."

The course has since become Casa Verde Builders, a partnership program between American YouthWorks and AmeriCorps, a national group that supports community-service projects. It also receives funding from Youth Build, a US Department of Housing and Urban Development initiative that supports inner-city building.

Casa Verde, which means "green house" in Spanish, fits well with the charter school's mission to help at-risk young people master basic skills and gain job experience through project-based learning. Casa Verde also helps East Austin restore and add to its stock of low-income housing.

The program is emblematic of a growing approach among schools to provide at-risk students with hands-on learning that shows how schoolwork is relevant to everyday life. There's broad evidence that at-risk youths benefit academically when they're actively engaged in projects - not to mention the valuable work skills they gain.

Since 1994, Casa Verde participants have constructed more than 30 energy- efficient homes in Austin's low-income neighborhoods. The two- and three-bedroom homes are made from earth-friendly materials and range in cost from $64,000 to $74,000. They have even earned a "green" four-star (of five) rating from Austin's Green Building Program.

Students are paid a stipend for their work. In addition, those who complete two six-month projects earn a $4,725 award to use at the college or trade school of their choice.

Building homes - and knowledge

Students learn some important basic skills at the construction sites, Steinhauser says, such as getting to work on time and organizing daily plans. They also develop abilities in problem-solving, reading, and math.

Casa Verde participants currently are working on four homes, which are headed by school trainers who act as supervisors.

Students at the school are required to complete 1,700 hours of community service each year, which includes project-based learning assignments. When they're not working on homes, the school helps students prepare for GED exams and earn Certificates of General Mastery that they can later use to secure trade apprenticeships.

Monique, a recent American YouthWorks grad and single mother, plans to use her bonus money to attend college and become a social worker.

It's a career choice, she says, largely influenced by people at the school who helped put her on the right track. She's already started counseling on her own at the job site.

Steinhauser says that about 10 percent of graduates opt for the trades, while about 50 percent decide to go on to higher education.

"We don't see ourselves as a jobs program for the building industry," he says. "We're a community-service program that just happens to build houses and teach construction skills. Kids can choose to stay in the building business or use their award and go on to college."

Help wanted

That said, there are plenty of Austin businessmen who hire AYW grads right out of the program. One, Home Depot store manager Dean Nichols, is a booster for both Casa Verde and its members.

"It's a nice partnership," he says. "And one of the things that's so neat about it is that it hits three of the things we're so passionate about - it helps youth [who are] at-risk, they use earth-friendly products … which we strongly encourage, … and it teaches the kids a trade."

Mr. Nichols recalls that the relationship with Casa Verde started after he heard about a break-in at one of the school's job sites.

Several merchants, including Home Depot, learned about the home-building program and decided to pitch in to replace tools that were stolen. From there, "the relationship just grew," he says.

Nichols's store currently employs one Casa Verde graduate, whom Nichols met on one of the school's construction sites.

"I gave him my business card and said, when you're ready … come and see me," he says. "He took me up on the offer."

To Steinhauser, finding jobs for the students is the ultimate goal, but Casa Verde has reached beyond that.

"It appears to be just another program out there dealing with at-risk kids," he says.

"But when you see all the different facets that this thing touches on - it's not only dealing with the kids, but also with the environment and low-income housing. All of a sudden you've got a lot of very important issues being dealt with."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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