Wasilla students learn by building

Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2002

WASILLA (AP) -- The half dozen workers perched high on the roof of the home could nearly pass for a regular construction crew.

They had leather tool belts around their hips, safety goggles strapped on their faces and they were busy tacking roof shingles down with nail guns.

The giveaway was the bright yellow school bus parked in front.

Class was in session for Wasilla High School teacher Ken Rezendes. Instead of books and pens, Rezendes hands his students table saws, nail guns and Sheetrock.

It's part of a Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District program aimed at teaching kids the basics of construction and giving some a leg up on careers.

For the past few weeks, about 30 sophomores, juniors and seniors in the construction trades class have been working on the roof of a house off Hiawatha Drive just north of Wasilla.

It's the latest of more than a dozen homes that Mat-Su high school students have built over the years. Similar programs exist around the state. But the Mat-Su program, which dates back 30 years, is one of the oldest.

It's come a long way since the first year when the students' $4,000 A-frame blew away -- twice -- said retired teacher Howard Lowery, who started the program. When finally completed, that A-frame sold at an auction for $9,000 and provided the seed money that got the program rolling.

Over the years, the teens have built 15 houses, from modest one-story ranches to a two-story colonial with delicately carved porch columns. Their biggest project so far was last year's sprawling 3,300-square-foot house, complete with a three-car garage.

Like the others, the latest home, a 1,140 square foot ranch, will be sold. The proceeds, estimated at about $120,000, will be used to finance construction of future houses.

The program is run under a nonprofit company. The only cost to the district are the salaries of Rezendes and assistant teacher John Phillips.

Or as Rezendes puts it: ''We earn every penny for every nail.''

About 45 students participate in the program each year. Most are boys, but a few girls sign up. Some are intimately familiar with the aisles of Home Depot while others are still getting the hang of using a hammer.

The students are responsible for nearly every detail of the home construction, including researching which lots to purchase.

They also design the home, frame it, pour the foundation, put in tile and install wallpaper.

Students said they like getting out of the classroom. They find the hands-on work more engaging than trying to learn from a textbook.

''You can see what you're doing right,'' said junior Arnie Mead, 17.

Or in some cases what goes wrong. At one point, an entire wall needed to redone because the nails hadn't gone in right, he said.

Rezendes, who joined the program 14 years ago, likes for students to add special touches that remind him of New England, where he built homes before moving to Alaska.

Those accents include covered porches and hand-carved columns. He's also had students put in curved stairways and install porches made with brick, a material rarely used in Alaska because of the high costs of getting it here. The homes often stand out among the more generically framed structures that dominate the Valley.

''I kind of like it when people are driving by and you see the brakes come on,'' Rezendes said.

About the only thing the students don't do is clear the land. They also get help with the plumbing and wiring, Rezendes said.

Gerald Rexrode bought a student-built home in 1994.

Left behind were a few touches of the teen-age kind, including graffiti in the basement and what looks like cleat marks in the kitchen linoleum. But they did a good job overall and added artistic touches, such as molded archways between the rooms and carved columns on the porch.

''I like the fact that it's different,'' said Rexrode, a retired telephone company worker.

The latest project is one of the smallest houses the students have built. They started it last fall and worked through the winter, even on days when the temperature dropped below zero.

''It took a little while to get going on those days,'' Mead said.

Mead and senior Jamie Roberts, 18, said they plan to work construction jobs this summer. It beats flipping burgers, said Roberts.

For students, the benefit of the class is learning a skill they can immediately put to use at good wages, Rezendes said. Contractors regularly call every spring looking for students he can recommend for work.

Tyson Sena, 20, who graduated from Wasilla High last year, is working as a house painter and said the class motivated him.

''To tell you the truth, a lot of people out there, they just don't do anything,'' he said. ''This class gave me a lot of heads-up on growing up, that it's better to get ahead and that kind of thing.''

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