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Posted on Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 5:57 a.m.

Home-building equals training opportunity for Ann Arbor high school students

By Lizzy Alfs


Huron High School junior Rodderick Paige listens as his teacher, John Birko, talks with him about installing drainage pipes at the house he helped construct as part of the Student Home Builders Association.

Angela Cesere |

There’s math, science, social studies and physical education — and for Huron High School junior Rodderick Paige, there’s also home building.

In addition to the typical high school curriculum, Paige gets to spend a portion of his weekday mornings at a development site in Ann Arbor building a home from scratch.

As a member of the Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program, Paige and 28 other students from Ann Arbor high schools are just adding the finishing touches to the program’s 41st home construction project.

The program, which has partnered Ann Arbor high school students with local business professionals since 1970, consists of a group of junior and senior students who build a house from raw land to finished product each year with the supervision of an instructor. The new house, located at 2370 Earl Shaffer Court in the Sumerset subdivision, will be completed in the next few weeks and has already been placed on the housing market, said Christine Hill, the marketing coordinator for the program. There will be an open house for the finished project on June 19.


Skyline High School junior Mike Ebbert sweeps outside the Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program's 41st home, located at 2370 Earl Shaffer Court in Ann Arbor.

Angela Cesere |

The program is run by a board of directors made up of local business professionals, who provide the land and handle the financing for completion of the house. The board purchased 11 lots in the Sumerset subdivision in 2004, and the house this year marks the sixth student-built home in the development.

“This development is going to represent over 10 years of kids in the school system that can all lay claim to the fact that they built this beautiful house in Ann Arbor,” said Hill.

Students come to the building site during the school year for three-hour time slots and receive three high school credits for participating in the program.

Each year, the home that the students build is sold and the profits fund the program. The four-bedroom home built this year is listed for $305,000.

John Birko, the instructor for the program, said that although there is always interest in the student-built homes, the houses are still selling for less than he expected.

“There has absolutely been a decline in home prices,” Birko said. “We expected these to go in the $320,000 to $330,000 range, but then home prices came down.”

Although he said the program is still well funded, the troubled housing market in recent years has affected the group’s scholarship fund, which gives education money to graduates of the program. In 2009, directors of the program started a fundraising campaign in order to continue giving out the scholarships.

“We are still trying to solicit people who wish to donate to the scholarship fund and will continue that campaign,” Birko said.

Despite the decline in housing market prices, marketing coordinator Hill said the student-built homes continue to attract interested buyers because “everything is done to perfection.”

“By and large our program has been recognized by people as being probably one of the best houses you can get for new construction,” said Hill. “It’s a quality house and people realize that.”

Hill said the program provides students with the opportunity to learn classroom skills in a practical manner, making them more “well-rounded” individuals.

“Talk about a practical way to learn your math or science,” Hill said. “It’s also teaching them important life skills.”

Ashlyn Thompson, Huron High School junior and member of the program, said that building the home this year helped her to narrow her career goals.

“After doing this program, I decided that I want to be a project manager in college,” Thompson said. “This program really helped me. I got to know so many people, the trade and how it works.”

Along with Thompson, Birko said many of the students have proven to be extremely skilled in the building sector. Four of the students in the program even won at a state-level building competition and will be competing at the national level at the end of June.

At the SkillsUSA “TeamWorks” competition, groups of four students present a business plan and then construct a frame structure with functional plumbing, electrical and masonry components.

Huron High School seniors Aaron Wyse, Jose Tavarez, Sergie Aviles and Dillon Davis won at the state level with the second highest score in the history of the competition, Birko said. They will be traveling to Kansas City to compete in a few weeks.

“We’re very proud,” Birko said. “It’s a huge honor that they have been able to make it to this point.”

Birko, who has been a part of the program for five years, said that aside from the practical skills the students develop, the program is about building individuals, not just houses.

“I like seeing many of the students find themselves for the first time,” Birko said. “Some of them finally see there is a place in this world for them where they fit. I enjoy opening their eyes and letting them see what their potential can be.”

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or at Follow her on Twitter at


fight hunger

Mon, Jun 6, 2011 : 1:29 p.m.

nice to see


Mon, Jun 6, 2011 : 9:09 a.m.

This is one of the most outstanding programs in Ann Arbor Public Schools. Students are engaged in tasks that require practical use of math and science while learning life long skills. I have witnessed previously unengaged students blossom into leaders who show pride in their work while in this program. I have also witnessed young men and women who are not "typical" students find a reason to get excited about coming to school. Much of this is due to John Birko who coaches students to be proud of what they accomplish on the job.


Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 9:10 p.m.

Great article! I was a part of this program back in the day, and it was great. It wasn't the funnest program at first, I think our first job was leveling the foundation, but in the end I learned a lot and had tons of fun. This program teaches you more about building a house than most people will learn in their entire lives. And it's a great way to get started in the construction or real-estate development business. Even if the job isn't "home-building", you will still be a preferred applicant when they see you were a part of this program, and you get a recommendation letter from your instructor. I know it appears as if this is just free labor for the people in charge of the program, but trust me, the stuff you learn and do at such a young age is far more valuable.

zip the cat

Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 6:56 p.m.

Not a good profession to learn for this area or most any area . I know loads of guys who gave up working in houseing construction . I don't see getting back to any sort of home building for at least 5 yrs. Why build a new house when you can find a forclosed house for 50-75 % less than a new one.

John B.

Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 10:57 p.m.

I think you missed the whole point of the program. Sad, but not surprising.

linda jeffries

Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 3:33 p.m.

It is wonderful to see this outstanding program recognized. Mr. Birko, or "Coach" as the kids call him, is truly one of Ann Arbor's most outstanding teachers. The students that he works with learn not only about the construction business, (all parts of building including wood working, painting, electrical, plumbing, and yes Mr. Joad, the cleaning up and finishing work that one does when a job is well done) but about what it takes to be leaders as well as workers. Mr. Birko teaches what all students need to know regardless of what field they enter. He teaches them confidence along with skills and watches as they grow into better and better versions of themselves. He deserves our thanks.

Tom Joad

Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 2 p.m.

I see one guy digging a ditch and another guy pushing a broom: a very good introduction to the construction business. Stay in school, kids, and study. This is just stoop labor.

John B.

Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 10:55 p.m.

The OP is just jealous because he and his teapubliKan friends are still out of work, waiting for things to trickle down on them....


Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 9 p.m.

It may look like free work for the people who are in charge of the program, but it's not. I was part of the class of '05, and I learned more things and got more experience in building a house than most people learn in their entire lives. Especially if you're going into the construction or real-estate development business, this program gets you on the fast-track. When an employer sees that you were a part of this program, and they get a recommendation from your instructor, you get put on top of the list. I know, because I've gotten two jobs that way. Maybe you were just making a joke, but before you comment on an article like this, don't jump to conclusions just by looking at two pictures.


Sun, Jun 5, 2011 : 4:23 p.m.

Wow, major league elitist much? I have two college degrees and I have pushed a broom in my career. I suppose you think these kids should have gone to the site in a suit and tie and arranged the financing for it like the training an MBA student gets? Learn how to make credit swap defaults and derivatives. How to do a Bernie Madoff to the world? get over yourself.