Berkmar High School students dressed in hard hats and long-sleeve shirts gripped an 8-foot-long wooden frame, lifted it and placed it on two horizontal 4-by-4 posts.
The students, all boys, took a minute to admire their work, which took the better part of their class time before construction teacher Patrick Mahaffey gave them a moment to escape the 100-degree heat index and down bottles of water.
But their work wasn’t finished. They were soon carrying plywood, the floor of their developing 8-by-12 toolshed, to be attached to the frame. When complete, the shed will be larger than the others that sat gathering dust in the indoor, warehouse section of the classroom. Students are most looking forward to building up to more complex projects like a tiny house or working with professionals on a construction site near the school.
Most students in the class, like junior Abraham Rodriguez, either have previous experience or a relative that works in construction. A career in construction is enticing to Rodriguez because of the demand for workers and high entry-level salaries.
“I chose to take the construction course because I really take interest, it’s something I love to do,” Rodriguez said. “I started as a freshman and this is my third year in the class. I’m looking to find a career and maybe start my own company one day.”
Mahaffey’s Berkmar construction students are not only learning, but they’re getting a head start. Once they complete the third year of the program, they have three certifications: basic safety, OSHA 10-hour training and either a certificate in carpentry, electrical, plumbing or masonry. That could eliminate up to one year of trade school for students. Next year, students will be able to complete dual-enrollment courses with Gwinnett Technical College while remaining on campus.
The introductory course, Industry Fundamentals and Occupational Safety, are open to freshmen and sophomores. This helps ensure that most of the students in Mahaffey’s introductory class stay in that class. The second course, Intro to Construction, gives them basic information regarding the different trades they can be certified in. Fourth-year students — there are none at Berkmar this year — can hopefully look forward to work-based learning.
“If I’m lucky enough to have all four years, we’re looking at them getting a job for half the day,” Mahaffey said.
Mahaffey said the Berkmar construction program is certified by the National Center for Construction Education and Research and the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia. The certifications us strict criteria to distinguish programs that are teaching the skills needed for a successful career path in the industry.
Career and technical education programs, such as the construction program at Berkmar, are funded federally through the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. A new version of the act signed by President Donald Trump in 2018 allows for the $1.2 billion federal investment in CTE programs to include middle schools (fifth grade and up).
Funding has steadily increased to more than $1.2 million since fiscal year 2016 figures were between $1 million and $1.2 million. GCPS currently employs more than 400 CTE teachers for this school year, a slight increase from last year.
“We have seen a plateau,” associate superintendent Jonathan Patterson said.
October will bring public hearings regarding Perkins Act state plans that could include a way that federal funds are distributed. GCPS and its 907,055 students currently receives approximately $1.3 million in Perkins funds. That is the most of any district in the state, but slightly lower than the $1.46 per student provided to the smaller Atlanta CIty School District (GCPS’ per-student rate is $1.46).
The class at Berkmar has seen proven results. Last year, Mahaffey said one former Berkmar student was hired by Eckardt Group. This year six were hired by the same company. He hopes to see that number continue to improve as more companies find how skilled their workers are.
Renovations plans at Berkmar could also present an educational opportunity for students.
“We’ll have a job site right here,” Mahaffey said. “Depending on who the contractor is — we have contacts with the Atlanta General Contractors Association — hopefully, whoever the contractor is belongs to that. That way we have an opportunity for these guys to actually do things on the site.”
During a break from the heat on Wednesday, Rodriguez emphasized the opportunities the class will provide him in the future.
“It’s a great class and it’s honestly a really good opportunity for people to learn about something, because this job is in really high demand,” Rodriguez said.