One afternoon each week, a group of students at Hanley International Academy file into a classroom to spend some extracurricular time with hacksaws, sprocket wrenches and Phillips screwdrivers. They learn how to fill bicycle tires and tighten lug nuts. They learn how to convert bar measurements to pounds per square inch, then how to hook up fog lights in a car using a waterproof connection. And, they know how to tape an electrical connection to code, just like the workers in Detroit’s auto plants.
This is deep learning — but these kids aren’t high school students in a Career Technical Education program (CTE) preparing to launch their careers in the skilled trades. In fact, they’re elementary and middle school kids in an afterschool Skilled Trades Club at the PK-8 tuition-free charter public school in Hamtramck.
These students say they’re here because they like to work with their hands, balance their academic work with practical skills and, as sixth-grade student Payton Warren puts it, “find out what’s inside the walls at home.”
The idea for a Skilled Trades Club at Hanley was sparked by the school’s Board President, Jeffrey Leib, who learned about the desperate need for electricians and other skilled tradespeople — a concern he’s heard again and again, according to Superintendent Steve Paddock.
School leaders reached out to the charter school’s authorizer, Grand Valley State University, for support and expertise in building the program.
Brooke Franklin, a GVSU School Consultant who works alongside the academy, was instrumental in identifying organizations to partner with and gathering information for the development of the program. She also organized a team visit to the Detroit Union Carpenters and Millwrights Skilled Training Center to learn how to best connect their own students to instruction in the skilled trades.
“We’re a preK-8 institution so we don’t have a direct impact with kids graduating from high school and their post-secondary plans,” Paddock says. “But our team wanted to start identifying barriers and having conversations with our students.”
With the goal of starting small and scaling as interest builds, the team identified an experienced leader for the club, Bill Bertakis. At the start of the school year, Bertakis attended the school’s orientation night with information and small tasks for the children to try.
“That’s where it really took off. Parents and kids were really excited about it and suddenly, we had almost 45 kids on our list,” explains Principal Jenna McGregor. “We were able to narrow it down to grades three through eight and picked a couple of kids per grade level to start us off.”
The club launched in the fall of 2022; currently, there are 12 students in the club and 25 on the waitlist. Next semester, the club will expand to accommodate more kids.
Giving students exposure to the skilled trades is a priority for this club. Kids can simply enjoy fixing things and working with their hands — or they can begin to picture themselves as a carpenter, electrician or builder.
Narrowing the high school choices
When students graduate and go on to high school, they have many choices for that next step. The more Hanley International Academy can help students recognize their strengths, the better able they are to make just the right high school choice.
“A lot of our students go on to charter high schools. There’s a big, very diverse, specific need for high school based on what the kids are interested in,” explains Samantha Fowke, Assistant Principal, adding that graduates can go on to CTE schools or art and design schools, amongst others.
“We spend time with our seventh and eighth graders, bringing high schools in to talk about that. When we know we’ve got kids interested in something in particular, we look for schools in the area and expose them to those schools,” she says.
After decades of telling students and parents that college is the only path to success after high school, educators in general are now thinking more broadly and working to reduce potential stigma when a kid makes a different choice.
Hanley is proud to support students in making their best choice, says McGregor.
“It’s a really big honor for us to be able to explain to our families and to our kids that choosing a skilled trade is no less of a path — that it’s just as great, if not better in some cases, if this is how you choose to further your education,” she says.
The environment of “niche” high schools allows students to make choices that weren’t necessarily available to their parents, and educators at Hanley recognize their role in providing exposure, Paddock says, and helping kids understand that high school is one choice along their path. They can pursue a skilled trade, then go on to college, even gaining management skills and experience to manage projects.
“A lot of our middle schoolers talk about owning their own businesses. That’s a really big thing at this age. The kids see their parents, they’ve come here, they’ve worked here and they own businesses or they’re working for family and friends. And the kids want to do that,” McGregor explains, adding that through the Skilled Trades Club, kids are connecting the dots about skills needed to run a business — and potentially working harder in their academic classes for that reason.
What the kids love to learn
Peek into the Skilled Trades Club and you’ll see students inspecting torque wrenches and learning how they’re used. But listen carefully and you’ll realize they’re also learning the physics behind torque measurements and bolt tension. They’re calculating how to deliver the correct torque using the correct tool. And, in some cases, these are lessons they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
The value of hands-on experiences is so high for young kids, Hanley educators created a school-wide initiative where each grade participates in project-based learning on Fridays. They get messy, get their hands dirty and learn STEM-based concepts at the same time.
In kindergarten, for example, kids mixed shaving cream and baking soda to create “snow.” Meanwhile, fourth grade students learned the basics of energy transfer by making s’mores in the classroom.
“We call them STEM Fridays and the kids are able to be a lot more hands on with our science content,” McGregor says.
Back in the Skilled Trades Club, the kids are asking questions and soaking up all they can. Seventh grader Farhanul Rajin loves that he’s learning to fix things so his mom doesn’t have to hire people for home repair, and Aubrey Skelly, a third grader, likes that she learned about tire pressure. Kory Reeves, who’s in fifth grade, just likes learning something new each week.
The club’s leader, Bertakis, who has a career’s worth of experience in tool and fabrication shops, knows that these kids are just the right age to learn these skills.
“If you want to change something, you have to do it at the kid level,” he says. “Everyone agrees that we need the skilled trades, and I’m the guy to teach them.”