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Posted on Mon, May 6, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Ann Arbor high school students in building program take first-place in state competition

By Janet Miller


Huron High School seniors Grant Stadelman, right, and Jared Leiffers work on the house on Earl Shaffer Court, sizing and cutting wood composite for the front porch. The students are two of the four members of a team that won top honors at a state competition in Grand Rapids. They advance to the national competition in June.

Janet Miller | For

There are no bleachers filled with screaming fans. No mascot. No cheerleaders.

Still, this team of Ann Arbor high school students brought home the gold recently when they competed in a statewide construction contest held in Grand Rapids. It was the third year running the students from the Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program took top honors in the SkillsUSA TeamWorks building competition, setting a state record. They advance to the nationals this summer.

While John R. Birko, instructor in the Ann Arbor program, said he has a pool of talented students, his students give the credit to Birko, a man they call coach.

“There is some talent in the program. We all have a drive,” said Grant Stadelman, a Huron High School senior and team leader in the competition. And it helped that two of the four students on the team went to last year’s competition.

But the success really goes to Birko, said Jared Leiffers, also a Huron High senior and a member of the four-member team. “My one goal is to impress him and make sure that he’s not disappointed in me. He is a great role model.”


Jared Leiffers is a Huron High School senior.

Janet Miller | For

Unlike most other high school building programs, Ann Arbor has built a new house every year for the past 43 years. This gives students an edge in the competition, Birko said. Students are in at the ground floor - literally. The day after school starts in the fall, students are at the home site as the ground is excavated for the basement.

The program, a business/education partnership, bought 11 lots in a neighborhood off of Dhu Varren Road, between Pontiac Trail and Nixon Road, north of the Dhu Varren Nature Area on the north side of Ann Arbor. There are three lots left. After that, the program will begin building houses on eight in-fill lots in a neighborhood off of Jackson Road near Zeeb Road.

Some 27 students spend three hours each school day working on the house, cutting composite wood for the front porch, digging holes for fence posts, installing cabinets, framing the roof. Half come in the morning, half in the afternoon.

While contractors are brought in to perform some of the work - installing the service panel, masonry, installing the hardwood floors - students work alongside the professionals. Mistakes are made, Leiffers said, such as the time the screw he used to install a cabinet was too long and broke through the cabinet face. But they are relatively minor and lessons are also learned. “I had to use wood fill and make sure the stain matched exactly. It had to be perfect,” he said. “The coach makes sure we know our stuff.”

While many of the program’s students want to work in the building trades after graduation - Leiffers will apprentice as an electrician and Stadelman will attend Washtenaw Community College to study construction management - not all his students become builders, Birko said. One of his current students wants to be an engineer, but wanted to gain hands-on experience. Another student went on to medical school.

For all his students, it’s a chance to put what they’ve learned in school into practice, Birko said. “It’s an incredible opportunity for young people to put all the things they’ve learned in high school - the math, science, language skills - all together in one package.”

The program is self-supporting, except for his salary and the salary of an assistant. Proceeds from the sale of the houses - asking price for this year’s four-bedroom house is expected to be around $340,000 - are used to finance future houses.

While he teaches students building trades, it goes beyond that, Birko said. It’s about teamwork. “They work together all the time. That’s why our students don’t do as well in the individual competitions. They don’t work alone often.”

The four students on the team travel to Kansas City, Mo. June 24-29 for the nationals, where they will spend most of three days building a structure the size of a small garage. The other team members are Jonas Gearhart-Hall from Community High and Tyler Waldrop from Pioneer High.

While the state competition included a day making presentations and two days building four walls on a 4-foot-by-8-foot platform, the national competition takes it up a notch. They will build a larger structure, including installing a sink, hot water heater and a service panel. And then they will take it down. “Deconstructing really tests safety,” Stadelman said.

Janet Miller is a freelance reporter. Contact the news desk at



Tue, May 7, 2013 : 7:59 p.m.

Makes me think of Henry Landau. He would be proud. Well done!


Tue, May 7, 2013 : 2:48 a.m.

No disrespect meant to the kids by my previous comment -- obviously a novice's first instinct will be to say, "Here, hold this, will you?" That's where the teacher is supposed to step in, though. Ironically, one of the most laughed-at classes I took at Pioneer, back in the 60s, was Creative Thinking. But Tom Dodd gave us a few ground rules for looking at everyday situations differently, and "thinking outside the box," as people like to put it these days. Building a clever jig, coming up with a different approach –– these are the things that keep carpentry and woodworking fresh and exciting for me. And those $150-per-published-tip checks that I get from Fine Homebuilding help, too! The people who read and adopt those shortcuts also happen to be the ones who come up with ones of their own. The end result is a community out there of highly-intelligent and creative carpenters/woodworkers that constantly pushes itself to greater heights through mutual encouragement and critique. Find a way to check your ego at the door, and be open to any and all critiques, and you will be the better for it. And say good-bye to being a Human C-Clamp.

Betsy Jackson

Mon, May 6, 2013 : 2:32 p.m.

Bravo! Thank you for the good news and best of everything to these students as they enter the work world.


Mon, May 6, 2013 : 2:22 p.m.

Many congratulations on the first place. This sounds like a great competition. Not to mention the results are useful.


Mon, May 6, 2013 : 1:21 p.m.

Congratulations to all involved in this project. Best in future endeavors.


Mon, May 6, 2013 : 12:38 p.m.

Re the lead picture: The clamp needed to hold that deck board while it was being notched to fit around that post would have come out of my truck at the same time as the jigsaw and extension cord. I don't pay a guy or a gal to be a "Human C-Clamp," and almost never need to ask someone to hold the "dumb end" of a board, even if I'm cutting, fitting, and installing 16-foot lengths of crown molding. There's almost always a smarter way to work, and the time and money expended to buy or make the necessary clamps, jigs, hooks, and props is only expended once. A worker, however, has to be paid by the hour, every time. I have no problem with hiring workers, but I don't use them for mindless tasks. An important part of any homebuilding program should be teaching efficient techniques, because in the real world, labor costs $20 to $50 per hour, and should not be wasted.


Mon, May 6, 2013 : 4:24 p.m.

hmsp: have you never gotten your picture taken by the newspaper for a feature story before? I have, and I know that the scenes are sometimes constructed or capturing a moment that may seem out of context for the reader. Why don't you try to keep an open mind rather than negatively judge a bunch of kids?

Angry Moderate

Mon, May 6, 2013 : 3:10 p.m.

Calm down.


Mon, May 6, 2013 : 12:35 p.m.

What happened to Joe Schmokel (sp?) ?? Was a home building student in 00/01 with him and Joel Davenport. Those guys were fantastic instructors. Home building was a lot of fun, and very educational. However, there were also a lot of miserable afternoons spent working out in the snow. Good memories.

Chester Drawers

Mon, May 6, 2013 : 7:13 p.m.

Can't spell his last name, either, but I do know his first name was Dave.


Mon, May 6, 2013 : 11:47 a.m.

An award winning, self sustaining program in the Ann Arbor Schools. Great job by students and teachers. Now that they've gotten some publicity the School Board will want to mess it up somehow.


Mon, May 6, 2013 : 11:24 a.m.

This is a good program and John Birko has done a great job. We need more programs like this to train future construction workers and others who do not want AP everything. So many students go to college, spend $50K or more and leave with worthless degrees and loads of debt.

Jon Saalberg

Mon, May 6, 2013 : 11:24 a.m.

This is a great Ann Arbor public schools program that deserves far more attention and praise than it receives. Congratulations to John Birko and his students for their TeamWorks award.


Mon, May 6, 2013 : 12:36 p.m.

I dunno, it's a perfect program to fly under the radar a little bit. More oversight and attention would probably not be helpful (safety police, work interruptions, etc).