Cardozo High Launch Groundbreaking Home-Building Project  

November 16, 2010

Cardozo High School | Photo by Fred Lewis
Cardozo High School | Photo by Fred Lewis

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Students in Cardozo High School’s Academy of Construction and Design are building a solid foundation for the future of the city and the academy at a vacant lot on 13th Street Northwest.

The former site of an old dilapidated house at 5734 13th St. will see new life in the coming months as students begin constructing the first student-built home in the District of Columbia.

“Building a house … that’s like a dream come true,” said Dion Shafer, 17, a Cardozo High junior enrolled in the school’s Academy of Construction and Design.

The project is a dream come true not only for academy students seeking real-life experience in construction trades, but also for those who have worked tirelessly over the past decade to make the academy and the home-building project a reality.

“It’s been a long journey, but I can tell today that … this is the beginning of a series of houses we will build together,” said John McMahon, chairman or Miller & Long Concrete Construction and president of the board of directors for the DC Construction Trades Foundation, which partnered with DCPS to create the academy at Cardozo.

McMahon said just before the foundation launched, his company “was under a lot of pressure to hire people but the employability wasn’t there.” Without skilled local help, construction companies were forced to hire outside the District.

Starting a construction trades foundation in partnership with DCPS will create a pipeline of skilled trade professionals in the District for generations, fulfilling a need among District construction companies and offering students vocational education programming.

“Construction is the largest private industry in the DC area and it is a job that can’t be sent to China,” McMahon said. “So it makes sense that this is where we’re training ourselves.”

McMahon approached Reggie Ballard, then-principal at Cardozo, who was interested in reinvigorating a vocational education program that had been defunct for 40 years.

“Reggie stepped forward. He said, ‘I’ll make it happen at my school,’” McMahon said. “It wouldn’t have happened without him.”

Beyond finding a site, McMahon and advocates faced other obstacles in getting the program off the ground.

“The challenge was to get the program accepted by the school board” at the time, he added, noting that the idea seemed good, but the challenge too great – until a student interjected with a voice of reason.

“The student said, ‘We just talked for 40 minutes about truancy. Maybe we wouldn’t have to if we had vocational education,’” McMahon recalled. “If kids could see this is the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.”

McMahon said vocational education helps students understand the relationship between the classroom and real-life applications.

“This makes geometry more relevant,” McMahon said. “We need kids to understand why they’re learning things and what they can do with these skills.”

The academy, which opened in 2005, has had great success in helping students make that connection and generating interest in careers such as architecture, construction, facilities management and electrical design. Students in grades 10 through 12 can take training courses in carpentry, electrical, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) and other technical specialties.

The academy enrolls more than 100 students a year and has a 90 percent graduation rate, with 34 going on to college on scholarship.

In the home-building program, students will apply their skills and safety training, while working under the supervision of licensed instructors and professional construction managers. Plans are for a 2,000-square-foot house that will incorporate energy-efficient building materials and instillation techniques.

Students say they will value the experience and the skills they will develop on the job. But there’s also a thrill knowing that they are creating something that will be around for a long time after they’ve graduated.

“Just making something happen for other people where there’s a need and knowing that my school is the first school in the District to build a home in the community is a good feeling,” said Angel Hall, 18, a Cardozo senior who has helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

Cardozo senior Lynell Walker, 19, said he’s excited at the fact that the program will be self-sustaining; proceeds from the sale of the house will be reinvested in future home-building projects through the construction trades foundation and the academy.

“This is amazing; a great opportunity,” Walker said. “I feel proud of myself and I’m glad to have the opportunity to work with such wonderful people.”

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