By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Jaiden Storey worked a job this summer that few students have ever experienced. The 13-year-old spent time building a school that he will attend, Now, he said, “[I] can’t wait until the school year starts.”
Storey was among more than a dozen students who worked this summer with the Build for Urban Prosperity (Build UP) program, which enabled young people to be part of construction efforts in the Ensley community—including Build UP Ensley, a school that will open next to P.D. Jackson-Olin High School. It may be the first in Birmingham where students attending the program helped construct their own educational facility.
“We worked on the design and architecture and spent time on the math side of that, reading tape measures and doing fractions,” said Build UP founder and CEO Mark Martin. “We started on the floor plans after that, and then we started on the demolition [and] knocked out about three rooms.”
Build UP Ensley is different from most schools because it ties in homeownership, workforce development, and academics as part of a six-year curriculum through which students earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree. It also enables students to build, repair, and maintain homes in the neighborhoods where they live.
Located in an old double-shotgun-style house, Build UP Ensley is starting with 25 students and hopes to graduate 20 in the first class, Martin said. The majority of students—18 of the 25—participated in a summer program during which student volunteers helped tear down and rebuild walls of the school they now occupy.
“Between eight and 10 kids would just walk across the street [from Jackson-Olin High School] and work on this house,” said Martin, who has spent more than 15 years as an educator, co-founding the Langston Hughes Academy Charter School in New Orleans, La., and working with both Teach for America and the Alabama State Department of Education.
Now, with the walls up and the doors open, Build UP Ensley students have committed to the private school as full-time students.
“It’s all or nothing,” Martin said. “They will have to leave … whatever school they’re at and enroll with us. [They will be here] from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. … [They] don’t graduate after four years and say, ‘Well, I’m over this.’ [They] get both a high school diploma and an associate [degree] at the end of the program.”
Parents are encouraged by what they’ve seen so far, including the hands-on experiences their children received over the summer. Lemar Storey, Jaiden’s father, said his son always wanted to work in construction.
“When I found out about this program, that was big for us,” Lemar said. “He can get started on his dream now in high school.”
Build UP Ensley will have seven staff members. Principal Ruben Morris has served as principal in the Denver, Colo., Public Schools system and at Birmingham’s Cornerstone Christian School; he is a Teach for America alum, as well.
“What makes [Build UP Ensley] unique is that we are a school and a workforce development program in one,” Morris said. “We offer highly innovative academics with highly [effective] apprentice models.”
Morris, who grew up in Irondale, said the school has the right people in terms of staff, experienced teachers, and industry professionals.
“The young people involved in the program are highly motivated and interested in doing nontraditional things,” he said. “There is support from the community and local city government. We’ve got a proven academic model in terms of personalized and competency-based models. We’re filling gaps. When you take a smaller class size—six adults for 22 kids—students get more attention and we can meet them where they are instructionally.”
That teacher-to-student ratio is important, Martin said.
“You arrive and, essentially, a lot of kids are working on laptops, getting instruction right where they are, instead of one teacher teaching one lesson to 30 kids. When kids are struggling with something, [teachers] can circle back through, help the kids, and move them along,” he said.
Once graduating, students receive both an accredited high school diploma based on Alabama College and Career standards and an associate degree in partnership with Lawson State Community College.
“They [can] take the [degree they earned] and apply to and be accepted at a four-year university to get a bachelor’s degree. Or, they have the option to use the skills they’ve learned in their apprenticeships and take a full-time salaried position with one of our partners,” Martin said. “By this time, they will have had six years of work experience under their belt, so it’s not entry-level—it’s a salaried, middle-class position.”
During their time in school, students still get to work on dilapidated housing in the area.
“We’re going after homes that are blighted, boarded up. A lot of them are catching fire and are a negative drag on public resources. By rehabilitating the houses, students will learn geometry, be able to frame out a wall, and actually put those skills—the measurement and angles—to use. They’ll be rebuilding blighted homes in their communities,” Martin said, adding that the students also can become homeowners.
How do these young people eventually take ownership of a property? Martin told Medium, an online publishing platform, that over the course of six years, the group of students who complete the program will take on a zero percent interest loan, similar to the Habitat for Humanity model, and will start making payments on their home.
“Nothing is free. There are no handouts,” Martin said. “They will take ownership. Not only will they be in owner-occupied units, but they also will have a duplex, so they can earn passive income through their rental property, gaining wealth and bringing stability to their neighborhood.”
Build UP Ensley students also will develop skills to become businessowners.
“Let’s say a student focuses on electrical work and earns an associate degree to become an electrician,” Martin said. “Instead of going to work for somebody, … this person could launch his or her own business being an electrician, become his or her own boss.”
Martin said Build UP Ensley will start as a private school, but it has hopes of becoming part of the Birmingham City Schools system.
“Starting out as a private school was the fastest way to open with the fewest barriers,” he said. “Now we’re a private school here in Alabama because our students are able to access $10,000 in a tax-credit scholarship. Right now, all but one of our students is qualified, because it’s based on income.”
Speaking of funding, tuition for Build UP Ensley is $25,000 per student, but families won’t have to come out of pocket with the full amount.
“The kids will earn scholarships, … $10,000 will come from state funding, $10,000 will come from the students working and earning wages in their apprenticeships,” Martin said. “They get some take-home pay, so they split it and the other half comes back to the school for their tuition. The families contribute $1,500, and the school is subsidizing $3,500 early on.”
Build UP Ensley teachers come from several areas.
“Some are on the building side, some are on the instructional side, [some are] academic,” Martin said. “We’re asking experts from all levels to come in and teach. We’re still building some of these partnerships. One of the teachers is trained in crisis management around mental-health issues [because] too much of that burden is falling on teachers.”
Anquanetter Johnson’s daughter, Ke’R Johnson, 16, will attend Build UP Ensley after leaving Minor High School. Anquanetter said she’s looking for more stimulating education.
“I want her to be able to focus more on school. Getting her education is most important,” she said. “Ke’R loves the teachers. That’s what caught her eye. … They spend so much time with her, and she’s excited about it.”
Angela Taylor said she enrolled her son, Torrey Washington, 16, at Build UP Ensley because it offered him an opportunity to grow. She believes learning both sides of homeownership—building and the business—is a key benefit of the program.
“They’re not only preparing him for business, he’s preparing for college,” she said. “He’s getting more life lessons from the guys who are mentors. He likes learning to work as a team with the other students. He feels like he’s getting more out of it.”