Ann Arbor high school students in building program take first-place in state competition
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
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.”
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
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 AnnArbor.com news desk at firstname.lastname@example.org.