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‘Classroom on Wheels’ Teaches Woodworking Skills to Young People


Outside the mobile woodshop at Ballou Stay Opportunity Academy in Washington, D.C.
‘Classroom on Wheels’ Teaches Woodworking Skills to Young People
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Handing power tools over to young students could result in some disastrous situations. But if those tools are combined with effective supervision and teaching, the students can learn valuable new skills and might even find a new career path.

One such program, in Washington, D.C., aims to teach woodworking and finished carpentry skills to teens and young adults. It includes a woodshop, completely housed inside a truck, that acts as a kind of “classroom on wheels.”

The Mobile Woodshop program was started by the nonprofit Zenith Community Arts Foundation. It is currently based at Ballou STAY Opportunity Academy in Washington, D.C. Ballou STAY is an alternative education program that offers students job training and has a high school graduation program for adults over age 23.

A student works on a project outside the mobile woodshop
A student works on a project outside the mobile woodshop

Margery Goldberg, Zenith’s director, said the goal of the woodshop is “to get people jobs.” Goldberg is an artist, wood sculptor and longtime member of the D.C. art community. She had long dreamed of creating a mobile woodshop to assist students. That dream finally came true in 2020, when the city gave her a large grant for the program.

The program at Ballou is called a Pre-Apprenticeship Carpentry Training Program. The subjects and skills taught in the class are similar to those offered by a local carpenters’ union that also supports the program. Students at Ballou can learn the same skills as a beginning carpenter would. These include cutting, marking, measuring, nailing and how to use different tools.

The class textbook provides step-by-step instructions on how to make things like simple wooden birdhouses, to more complex wooden containers and objects. The truck is equipped with all the instructional materials and tools necessary to operate as a complete mobile classroom. Mobile workstations are also available so students can work on projects outside the truck.

If students pass the class, they can seek to enter the union apprenticeship program. Instead of a usual four-year apprenticeship, graduates of the mobile woodshop can finish in less time.

Joe Largess is a teacher at the woodshop. He said much of the class centers on teaching students “soft skills.” These are skills that are desirable in all jobs, such as teamwork, having a strong work ethic, being able to follow instructions and arriving to work on time. Students also learn basic skills like math and how to read a ruler.

The union wants “people who are employment ready,” said Austin Travis, the woodshop’s other teacher. “And that’s a lot more soft skills than just being able to put all that stuff together,” he added.

Ryan is a student at the mobile woodshop. Before entering the class, he had some experience working with wood and tools. He had even helped a family member build a fence around a house.

“That’s why I started in the class, because I like working with my hands and I already knew how to work with electrical tools,” Ryan said. “I wanted to give myself a chance to get better at it.”

Ryan said he sees another benefit to learning woodworking: “You can sell some of this stuff and make money for it.”

Inside the mobile woodshop.
Inside the mobile woodshop.

Building-related jobs are currently in high demand across the United States. One study from the Home Builders Institute found that 2.2 million jobs will be needed by 2024 to keep up with building demand. And, the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics estimates that more than 89,000 openings for carpenters will be created each year in the U.S. over the next 10 years.

Goldberg believes woodshop programs can help prepare the next generation of woodworkers. She said other schools in Washington have expressed interest in the mobile woodshop and the program might be expanded in the coming years.

Largess said the class at Ballou seeks “to help some people who wouldn’t have the chance to even get into the apprenticeship program, and give them a leg up.” That, he added, can “hopefully help them with a better future.”

I’m Dan Novak.

Dan Novak reported this story for VOA Learning English.

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Words in This Story

carpenter n. a person whose job is to make or fix wooden objects or wooden parts of buildings​

alternative adj. not usual or traditional​

sculptor n. a person who makes sculptures​, a piece of art that is made by carving or molding clay, stone, metal, etc.​

grantn. an amount of money that is given to someone by a government, a company, etc., to be used for a particular purpose ​

nail n. a long, thin piece of metal that is sharp at one end and flat at the other end and that is used chiefly to attach things to wood​

apprentice n. a person who learns a job or skill by working for a fixed period of time for someone who is very good at that job or skill

ethic n. rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad​

benefit n. a good or helpful result or effect​

leg up adj. to give someone an advantage over others

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