You can take foreign languages, math, and orchestra in high school, 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 to high school students.
Based in Malone, Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES has approximately 150 students. Students are spread across programs such as construction, electrical, and HVAC. These hands-on programs equip students with specific skills and prepare them to enter the workforce right out of high school.
Building houses in high school
Garrett Niles wears a tool belt and leans over a closet in a light blue Tiny House on Wheels. Niles is 17 years old and a junior in high school. He is one of 35 students in the construction trades program here at the North Franklin Educational Center in Malone.
“It’s much better than sitting in a classroom all day,” he said. “And a lot more fun. I can actually learn something that can help me make money in the future and stuff like that.”
Students come from Chateaugay, Bombay, Fort Covington, St. Regis Falls and Akwesasne for the program. Niles has a short commute because he lives in Malone. He spends the first half of his day at the high school just up the hill.
“I go to school up there and then come down to BOCES in the afternoons to work the rest of the day down here.” he said.
In addition to the tiny house, the children are also building a 1,500 square meter modular house.
“It begins 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, you know, a finished product that someone could live in. It’s pretty cool.”
“Not every child learns from books”
Ashlaw is 44 years old. Raised in Malone, he completed the same BOCES program as a teenager, then worked as a union carpenter for 20 years.
“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 reasons I went to school was to come here for my junior and senior year.”
Ashlaw began 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, well, 10 to 15 years that not many kids have come out of these programs that I’ve seen on the construction sites.” he said. “So I wanted to come back and train kids to get them out of there.”
Ashlaw said former students now work for local contractors and for the New York carpenters’ union UBC, where annual salaries start at $35,000 and include benefits and retirement.
Many students here aspire to a career in construction. Niles wants to join UBC. Destiny Roque, one of only two girls in the program, wants to start her own business.
“I’ve liked building for a long time” said Roque. “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 to start my own business in the future.”
Others, like Jared Sweet, said they joined the program “because those are useful skills.”
“In the future I can fix things in my own house”, he added. Sweet isn’t sure he wants to work in construction, but said he enjoys working with his hands.
A place to excel
For children who have always struggled with tests and traditional academics, BOCES tech careers programs can be truly empowering and an opportunity to excel in school. Of the dozen students I spoke to over the course of the afternoon, each said that “book work” was not their forte. Tehonietathe Sharrow said he struggled a lot with grades.
“Ever since I was in middle school, actually.” he said. Sharrow drives to Salmon River every day and commutes to Malone. He says practical work interests him “because I can only do so much on a piece of paper.”
“Well really, [this program]it was a relief” he added.
Savanna Clark of St. Regis Falls said she feels the same way. She feels good in it.
“I took a trading course for three years. It was really good. I loved it. Dear construction projects. For me it’s just more of a way to express a lot of emotions.”
Sharrow and Clark were painting a closet together when I spoke to them. They met on the program and quickly became friends. They both said they opened up here. Clark said when she came here, it was her “very antisocial.”
“But over time, I started to open up a bit more.” She said. “On a construction site. It will somehow be necessary to talk to people you don’t really know. And it’s just cool to have friends that you meet from different schools. So it’s been quite an experience this year.”
Sharrow and Clark are both juniors and they say they will definitely be returning next year.
The craftsmen of the future
Eric Ashlaw, the construction trades teacher, said his program (and the rest at Malone FEH BOCES) is good for students but also plays a crucial role in the North Country workforce.
“Our workforce in the trade is actually getting to the point where [many of our older workers]they will retire.” he said. “And we need people to take their positions. And there’s so much work out there right now that we need these guys out there.”
He said right now, at the end of each school year, he goes out looking for workers every day. And he has her.