Shylah Boss-Hargis, who will enter ninth grade at Philadelphia’s Lincoln High School in the fall, spent part of her Thursday morning helping to build a “bunny mansion” on Fox Chase Farm.
She climbed a ladder, wore a safety harness, and used a power tool to install the roof beams and secure plywood tiles on the small wooden structure that will serve as a home for rabbits.
“It looks hard,” the 14-year-old said. “But it’s enjoyable.”
She was one of 16 middle school students participating in the project at Fox Chase Farm, part of the evolution of the school district’s career and technical education programming. This is the first year that the district has opened up summer work experiences in career and technical education-related jobs like construction to seventh and eighth graders.
It’s provided a great opportunity for students eager to get involved in hands-on activities, especially amid the pandemic and long periods of remote learning.
This summer, 200 district students are working in career and technical education-related jobs as part of an ongoing partnership with Philadelphia Youth Network, which places and pays hundreds of city students each year in a variety of summer jobs and internships. The 16 middle schoolers, all from Mayfair, a K-8 school in the city’s Northeast, are among 60 working at Fox Chase Farm.
And the 16 are all students of Evin Jarrett, a former contractor, who teaches fifth through eighth graders about construction. He is a specialty teacher, similar to those for art and music, who has students for one period a day while the regular classroom teacher has preparation time.
Jarrett, a big man with a big smile, introduces his students to a variety of the construction-related programs available in high schools — plumbing, electrical work, roofing, welding, and even masonry. The district has several schools focused on career-technical education, but many of these programs are also available in neighborhood high schools like Lincoln
All the students on his “bunny mansion” crew were rising ninth graders, except for one who is entering eighth grade.
While many students are assigned randomly to his class, most of them, like Boss-Hargis, have loved the experience. Originally, he was supposed to take on just five middle school students in the summer program, but the demand was high enough that he “begged” officials for permission to accept more.
For the summer program, Jarrett has 13 girls and three boys; students who took the initiative to apply early were the ones who got in, he said. While he does his best during the year in his classroom to allow students to actually practice the trade, the summer program is the capstone.
“It’s a great opportunity” for them to actually build things, he said. “In the classroom, we don’t have as much space.”
Fox Chase is one of three farms in the city that the district owns and uses for special programs like this one. (The Walter B. Saul High School in the Roxborough section of the city has its own farm and is — as far as district officials know — the only such urban school in Pennsylvania.)
Jarrett creates a fun atmosphere for the students too. He asks the students what music they like and builds a playlist based on their preferences that’s always blaring in the background while they work. That alone is a draw for students like Boss-Hargis.
“It’s not just the construction, it’s the vibe, the energy, the music” on the work site, she said. “When I heard about this job, I was so excited to get on it and join in.”
While the district has aspirations to expand introductory career and technical education programs to more middle schools, officials said there are no immediate plans to do so. The Mayfair program is the only exploratory one in construction in the district.
Jarrett, who grew up in Mount Airy, attended C.W. Henry, a K-8 school, before graduating from Roxborough High. He then went to Cheyney University with intentions of becoming a teacher.
He deviated from that career path by working in construction for a time. But after doing some moonlighting teaching at Orleans Tech, a school for adults who want to learn new job skills, he “fell back in love with teaching.” He returned to school to earn his certification and got a job in the district.
He loves teaching the middle schoolers and is the only one teaching them construction trades in the entire district.
At Mayfair, the largest non-high school in the city with an enrollment of nearly 1,700, it is largely luck whether students are assigned to art, music, construction, or another “special” class. But the students said Jarrett’s popularity spread by word of mouth, and a number have asked to be in his class. They’ve also tried to finish their regular classroom work early so they can go to his room to hang out.
“I don’t really eat lunch, I just go to his class,” said Mohamed Muhatdi, 13, the only rising 8th grader in the summer group.
For Boss-Hargis, who grew up in New Jersey, this was her second year as a student in the Philadelphia schools, and her first actually in a classroom due to the pandemic.
“At first, I was just assigned to his class, but I started to enjoy it because we weren’t just sitting and listening to a teacher talk all day,” she said. “In this class, we were getting actual experience.”
Now she plans to pursue career and technical education courses at Lincoln.
Other students at the site said career and technical education courses give them the chance to do hands-on work, to make things, and to learn new practical skills. And students have enjoyed learning from Jarrett even if their long-term ambitions don’t involve roofing or wooden beams.
Sahmya Logan, 14, plans to hone her singing voice at Creative and Performing Arts High School. But after being assigned to Jarrett’s class, she now knows the difference between a circular saw and a miter saw. And she can operate both.
“I like cutting wood, and I’m good at it,” she said.
Arlene Mora, 14, who will attend Northeast High School, plans to be a surgeon. Now, she thinks nothing of climbing onto the slanted roof (the students wear a safety harness in such situations) to install roof beams and the plywood tiles. “I love it,” she said.
Eric Fripps, 14, who is on his way to Central High School, said he likes carpentry especially. “I like the idea of hands-on learning,” he said. “We learn something new every day.”
Another thing he’s learned? “Patience is the key to getting something done.”
For Aralis Martinez, 14, who is going to Lincoln, the act of creating something tangible “really opens people’s minds. And it gives us more opportunities. I didn’t know there was a class like this.”
Jarrett overheard the students talking about him as he supervised them in a host of activities, students, darting around with materials and sharing advice.
“I’m the Michael Jordan of CTE,” he joked.
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at email@example.com.