Leveling Up

November 29, 2023
Danna Lorch

A Hands-On Summer Program for High Schoolers Teaches Carpentry and Teamwork

One morning in July, Omar Ocasio, a recently graduated senior at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School (MP) in Boston, was putting up the third wall of a small house he and his classmate Kenron Parchment were building by hand. The house was the centerpiece of the Summer Intensive program that they were part of—held in partnership between MP and North Bennet Street School (NBSS).

He was surprised by how much easier this wall was to install than the first one had been just a few days before. “With wall one, we were nervous,” Omar admitted. “We had to double check the measurements with our instructors and felt self-conscious. After the second wall, we became faster and more confident. Today, the third wall went up smoothly because our teamwork had gotten stronger.” 

Student applying weather stripping around a window

The cohort of seven students from the Building Property and Maintenance program learned carpentry essentials over five weeks of training at NBSS. The intensive course was designed to simulate a residential job site. Each group of 2-3 students was challenged to construct a small structure while developing skills such as reading a blueprint, wall and floor framing, drywall installation, hanging doors, and installing windows. 

The students also got a taste of different aspects of carpentry outside of their NBSS experience. At one point, the group took a field trip to view a job site of Columbia Contracting Corp., which employs a number of NBSS graduates and is one of the School’s Partners In Craft. The visit was made possible by Columbia Principal Kate Durrane, who serves on the School’s Board of Advisors.

Launched in 2016 and now in its fifth iteration due to a pandemic pause, the MP program is the fruit of a meaningful partnership between the two schools that aims to show students their future educational and career horizons. 

NBSS President Sarah Turner was filling in at the School’s front desk one morning and welcoming each of the MP students by name. 

“It’s just so gratifying to have these young students in the building and as part of our community—if only for part of the summer. They bring such great energy to NBSS, and are clearly excited to learn and discover new skills and modes each day,” Sarah said. “The next generation of people are becoming aware of the ways that they can serve their communities, the ways they can help their neighbors, and the ways they can be employed.” 

Student using a chop saw

To make sure students were supported throughout, MP and NBSS provided each student with a transit pass and stipend, while also offering on-site meals. Students had no sooner finished breakfast before beginning to buckle their tool belts and put on their safety goggles, getting started on their day in the workshop.

With a pencil tucked behind his ear, the program’s lead instructor Peter Smith PC ‘04 (and also the career training program Carpentry Department Head), observed that this group enjoyed using tools for the first time. That involved getting to cut wood with a variety of hand- and machine-based saws, learning to use an impact driver, installing screws, and getting some pointers on how to use a tape measure more effectively. 

“These students are curious. They respond well to instruction. It’s refreshing to take young students with a limited amount of carpentry experience and see them become so engaged,” Peter shared. It was this curiosity that made them willing to work hard.

“These students are curious. They respond well to instruction. It’s refreshing to take young students with a limited amount of carpentry experience and see them become so engaged.”

While the students were initially nervous when tasked with using math skills to calculate dimensions for cutting the lumber for their project, he watched them grow in their abilities over the summer with a lot of teamwork and 1:1 instruction. Omar said, “After the first week I was pretty amazed that I started remembering things and my math improved. Now I know that a 2×4 is actually 1.5×3.5 inches.”

His project partner, Kenron Parchment, was also a graduating senior at Madison Park. He fell in love with carpentry before attending the Summer Intensive, after rebuilding a broken bench for a teacher last year. Kenron agreed that the learning curve at NBSS was steep, but the instruction style and Omar’s support kept him calm and motivated. 

He said, “Peter or [assistant instructor] Jeff come by every so often in the workshop to tell Omar and I what we could do better, how to fix any problems, or just to tell us when we’ve done a good job with something. When you’re new to carpentry you definitely want to work with someone who is experienced and knows what they’re doing.” 

Instructor Peter Smith with a group of students
Instructor Peter Smith with a group of students

Peter agreed that what he aims to offer the students is the ability to think outside the (literal) box that they are building. “Everything about carpentry is just problem solving,” Peter believes. “I’m trying to teach them how to ask themselves the right questions to approach a problem and come up with multiple solutions.” 

His assistant instructor, Jeff Hanley CA ’21, CF ’24, a father of teenagers, thought deeply about how to best connect with and inspire the Madison Park students. Because this was not school—it was the high schoolers’ summer breaks—he set out to create a summer camp-like atmosphere where each individual is honored each day for showing up and being themselves. 

He watched with growing respect as the students who arrived so hesitantly learned to trust themselves and each other using carpentry as a vehicle. “Four weeks in and they are a well-oiled machine,” Jeff marveled. “They are considerate to the workshop and they care about each other.” 

One of the program’s goals was to present carpentry as a viable and meaningful career path to the MP students by giving them experiences both inside and outside the NBSS workshop. 

Group photo of intensive students, instructors, and administrators

That was exactly why MP student Gabriel Algarin signed up at the suggestion of his high school mentor. “They told me that I would learn carpentry and get paid at the same time,” Gabriel explained. “I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about this field and see what I want to do in the future.” He achieved those goals—at one point adeptly handling a large nail gun to get sheets of plywood secured while applying just the right amount of pressure. 

“If you don’t know anything about carpentry beforehand, NBSS is a great place to go. They’ll teach you all the basics and get you to a higher level,” Gabriel said before returning to the workshop to frame his fourth window of the day. 

“NBSS is a really nice environment to be a part of, and this is a great opportunity to go right into work after I graduate,” Omar shares.

This story is part of our FY23 Annual Report. View more issues here.