How Garrett High School is training the next generation of skilled trades professionals

Past the table saw, nail gun, and piles of raw timber, a nearly-finished playhouse sits in a classroom workshop at Garrett High School. On this crisp fall day, the class is working together to finish a playhouse they plan to auction.

Currently, more than 150 high school students are enrolled in the career development program focused on the construction, manufacturing, and welding trades. For these students, it’s just a normal day of class at Garrett High School.

Yet for the teachers and administrators facilitating the career development program, the revolutionary concept has landed the school in the national spotlight.

Garrett High School teacher Chad Sutton is among 50 teachers and teacher teams from across the country who were named as semifinalists for the 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Garrett High School teacher Chad Sutton, right, with some of his students.

Sutton and the Garrett High School skilled trades program are in the running for a share of $1 million in total cash awards.

“The Harbor Fright competition is humbling because when you start researching the different programs in the running, there are some amazing programs,” Sutton says. “I think it’s so cool that we can learn more about these programs because of this competition. I have already reached out to a couple of them and we are beginning to collaborate.”

Sutton started teaching construction trades at Garrett High School in 2008. Previously, he and his wife owned and operated their own construction company in northeast Indiana.

A Garrett High School student works on a playhouse they plan to auction.

Through a special career-oriented academic program, students in the Garrett-Keyser-Butler Community School District start exploring construction and manufacturing as early as fifth grade. As the students continue through middle school and high school, they begin to develop interests in specific career paths. 

From there, the student’s chosen career path shapes their academic course load. English, math, and science are incorporated into construction classes and vice versa. Science and history are the next subjects to be added.

By their senior year, Sutton hopes the students are fully prepared for an internship or apprenticeship in the trade of their choice.

By following their passions, students are filling gaps in the skilled trades.

For Sutton, the most important element of the student’s skill development is connecting them with local businesses and exposing them to different career opportunities.

“We invite the community to participate all the time,” he says. “We have a speaker in every week from a different business. We invite our partners to visit anytime and see what the students are doing. We want the community to meet the kids. This is our future workforce. I ask people to get to know them, learn about who they are and what they do because they will be a part of your business someday.”

Garrett students get practice using machinery.

This semester, some senior students are interning at local businesses, like Weigand Construction, Timberlin Homes, Freedom Heating & Plumbing, and H&L Electric. The Home Builders Association of Fort Wayne, Builders Association of Northeast Indiana, and the Building Contractors Association of Northeast Indiana and all of their members have been partners in creating opportunities for students.

When English teacher Jonelle Furnish began teaching the new curriculum, she says she had to adopt an entirely new mindset.

Furnish began focusing her English lessons on reading and writing instructional manuals and exploring technical writing styles. She also ensures each student is prepared for a job interview with a resume and cover letter. Each day, the teachers at Garrett High School are connecting students with opportunities and preparing them to thrive in their careers.

“The partnerships we have with the community are phenomenal because it takes all of us working together to help these students succeed,” Furnish says. “It’s really neat because some of these kids didn’t have any idea what they wanted to do and we provide them with exposure to different careers.”

Skilled trades concepts are integrated throughout the coursework at Garrett High School.

For homeschool student Micah Greven who attends Garrett High School for the career development program, the program cemented his interest in getting a job in the skilled trades. Before exploring the options through the program, Greven says he never would’ve known what careers he liked or disliked.

“I struggled in homeschooling,” he says. “I knew I liked to work with my hands, and I came to Garrett High Schools because friends at church recommended the program.

Greven is interested in mechanical engineering and learning more about underwater welding. To prepare, he’s studying CNC machining.

“It’s kind of like making art,” he says. “You program your art, and you watch it get made.”

Garrett High School student Lauren Tinkler says she wants to work in construction or manufacturing when she graduates.

“You can make anything you want,” she explains. “My whole family is in the construction business. When I was little, I always enjoyed construction. For me, it’s not like, ‘Oh, I have to do this.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, I get to go do this, and I really want to do this.’ My uncles are in construction, and they are also iron workers, so I would like to learn more about welding, too.”

The 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize semifinalists now advance to a second round of competition, where they will be asked to respond to online, expert-led video learning modules designed to solicit their insights and creative ideas about teaching practices. The contenders will be asked how ideas from the modules might be used to inspire students to achieve excellence in the skilled trades.  

Two rounds of judging, each by separate independent panels of reviewers, will narrow the field to 18 finalists and, finally, name the three first-place and 15 second-place winners. Winners will be announced Oct. 24.

The 18 winners will split $1 million in prizes. First-place winners will receive $100,000 each, with $70,000 going to their public high school skilled trades programs and $30,000 to the individual skilled trades teachers or teacher teams behind the winning program. Second-place winners will be awarded $50,000 each, with $35,000 going to their public high school programs and $15,000 to the teachers or teams.

Past winners have dedicated their winnings to modernizing their shops, investing in specialized tools, promoting their programs to families, and purchasing equipment to prepare students for higher-level accreditations.

If Sutton is fortunate enough to be a winner, all of the prize money will stay in the program to support more opportunities for the students, he says. He stresses that his work is not about national recognition or filling the skills gap. Instead, it’s about teaching students differently—the way they need to be taught as unique, intelligent individuals.

“Not everyone learns the same way.” Sutton says. “We need to teach students differently, allowing them to create passion by developing skills. More students doing what they love to do, will fill the skills gap. If a student wants to go to college, I want to help them get there. But if they don’t and it’s not necessary for success in their life, then why go that route? We talk less about college and more about postsecondary education. Your college may look different than somebody else’s college, and that’s OK.”

He believes the opportunities that positions in the skilled trades can lead to are not currently well communicated to students either.

“It’s not just about the person in the field with the hammer, but what can they do as that career continues.” He explains. “When that person decides to leave the field, they become the project manager, project engineer, the salesperson, the estimators… they’re the owners of the company. However we measure success, they’re just as successful as someone who went to a four-year school.”

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