In high school, you can take foreign language, calculus, and band classes, but at some North Country schools, you can also learn how 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-Essex-Hamilton, based in Malone, there are approximately 150 students. Students are split 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 Educational Center in Malone.
“It’s much better than sitting in a classroom all day” he said. “A lot more fun too. I can actually learn something that can actually help me earn money and other things in the future.
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”, he said.
In addition to the tiny house, the kids also build a 1,500 square foot modular house.
“It starts with a pile of wood in the fall”, said Eric Ashlaw, the building trades teacher. “And at the end of the year, you have something like that, you know, a finished product that someone could live in. That’s pretty cool.”
“Not all children learn from a book”
Ashlaw is 44 years old. He grew up in Malone and went through that same BOCES program as a teenager, then spent 20 years working as a union carpenter.
“Well, I guess not every kid learns from a book. That was me,” he said. “When I was in high school, one of the main drivers of me coming, wanting to come to school, my junior 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’ve noticed over the last 10 to 15 years that there aren’t many kids coming out of these programs that I see on the job sites,” he said. “So I wanted to come back and train the kids to get them out.”
Ashlaw said the former students now work for local contractors and for the New York carpenters union, UBC, where the annual salary 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” Roque said. “My dad does it and he starts his own business. So I try to help her too. So it’s nice to learn. I hope to start my own business in the future.
Others, like Jared Sweet, said they joined the program “because they are useful skills.”
“In the future, I can fix things in my own house”, he added. 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 had a hard time with his grades.
“Since I got into college really,” he said. Sharrow travels to Salmon River and drives to Malone daily. He says practical work interests him “because I can’t do much on a piece of paper.”
“So true, [this program]It was a relief.” he added.
Savanna Clark of St. Regis Falls said she felt the same way. That’s why she feels good.
“I took workshop courses for three years. It was really good. I liked it. Likes to build projects. For me, it’s just more like a way to bring out 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 said they opened here. Clark said when she came here she was “very antisocial”
“But over time, I started to love, to open up a little more”, she says. “In a building site. You will need to talk to people you don’t really know. And it’s just cool to have friends you meet at different schools. So it was 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, said his program (and the rest of the Malone FEH BOCES) is good for students, but also plays 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, he said. “And we need people back to their jobs. And there’s so much work right now that we need these guys.
He said that now, at the end of each school year, he answers daily calls looking for workers. And he has them.