June 22, 2022 —
In high school, you can take foreign language, calculus and orchestra lessons, but in some schools in the north of the country, you can too learn to fix a car or build a house. New York’s BOCES, the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, provide vocational and technical education programs for high school students.
At BOCES Franklin-Esse-Hamilton, based in Malone, there are approximately 150 students. Students are divided between programs such as: building trades, electrical and HVAC. These hands-on programs teach students a specific skill set and prepare them to join the workforce right out of high school.
Building houses in high school
Garrett Niles wears a tool belt and leans over a cupboard inside a bright blue ‘Little House on Wheels’. Niles is 17 and a junior in high school. He is one of 35 students in the building trades program here at the North Franklin Education Center in Malone. in the future to earn money and stuff.”
Students come from as far away as Chateaugay, Bombay, Fort Covington, St. Regis Falls and Akwesasne for the program. Niles has a short commute, as he lives in Malone. He spends the first half of his day at high school just up the hill. “I go to school up there, then I go down to BOCES in the afternoon, I work here the rest of the day.”
In addition to the tiny house, the kids also build a 1500 square foot modular house. Eric Ashlaw, the building trades teacher, says “it starts with a pile of wood in the fall. And at the end of the year you have something like this, you know, a finished product in which someone ‘one could live. That’s pretty cool.”
“Not all children learn from a book”
Ashlaw is 44, grew up in Malone and went through that same BOCES program as a teenager, then spent twenty years working as a union carpenter.
“Well, I guess not every kid learns from a book. That was me,” Ashlaw said. “When I was in high school, one of the main drivers for me to come, to want to come to school, my freshman and senior year was coming here.”
Ashlaw started leading the program in 2017, and he says a big motivator for him is preparing students to really get into the field. “I noticed over the last 10 to 15 years that there weren’t a lot of kids coming out of these programs that I saw on the job sites. So I wanted to come back and train kids so that they there.”
He says former students now work for local contractors and for New York’s carpenters’ union, UBC, where annual pay starts at $35,000 and includes benefits and retirement.
Many students here are considering a career in construction. Niles would like to join UBC. Destiny Roque, one of only two girls in the program, would like to start her own business. “I like to build for a long time. My father does it and he starts his own business. So I try to help him too. So it’s nice to learn. I hope that one day I will start my own business in the future.”
Others, like Jared Sweet, said they joined the program “…because it’s useful skills. In the future, I can fix things in my house.” Sweet isn’t sure if he wants to work in construction, but says he enjoys working with his hands.
A place to excel
For children who have always struggled with traditional tests and academics, BOCES Technical Trades programs can be truly empowering and an opportunity to excel in school. Of the dozen students I spoke with during the afternoon, each of them said that “book work” was not their forte.
Tehonietathe Sharrow said he struggled a lot with his grades: “Since I really got into middle school.” Sharrow travels to Salmon River and drives to Malone daily. He says practical work interests him, “…because I can’t do everything on a piece of paper. So really, [this program]it was a relief.”
Savanna Clark of St. Regis Falls said she felt the same way. That’s how she feels good “I took workshop classes for three years. It was really good. I loved it. I love building projects. For me, it’s just more like a way to convey a lot of emotions .”
Sharrow and Clark were painting a closet together when I spoke to them. They met on the show, and became fast friends. They both say they opened up here. Clark said when she came here she was “very anti-social. But over time I started to like it, opened up a little bit more. I really know. And it’s just cool to have friends that you meet in different schools. So it’s been quite an experience this year.
Sharrow and Clark are both juniors, and they say they will definitely be back next year.
The future trades workforce
Eric Ashlaw, the building trades teacher, says his program (and the rest of the Malone FEH BOCES) is good for students, but they also play a vital role in the North Country workforce.
“Our trades workforce is getting to the point where [many of our older workers], they will retire. And we need people to return to their jobs. And there’s so much work right now that we need those guys.”
And he says that right now, at the end of each school year, he answers daily calls looking for workers. And he has them.