From the ground up, students remodel homes, reshape futures: Part I
Great things happen when schools, businesses, and communities join forces to work together on mutual goals for the common good. The Community Build program in Marion is a shining example of the transformative power of just such commitment, energy and action.
The project was inspired by the Marion Independent School District’s already established new-home build program, where high school students earn credit and gain valuable on-site work experience while constructing a new home.
This year, after Principal Greg Semler and Superintendent Janelle Brouwer met with the Marion Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO), the program pivoted with the goal of reinvesting in older, core neighborhoods that need a spark to encourage reinvestment in such properties, thereby building long-term property values and creating affordable housing opportunities for young families.
The Community Build project, where local high school students work on site for an hour and a half every day remodeling an older home, offers hands-on opportunities for students to roll up their sleeves, work hard, network, learn about building trades and explore careers. In turn, students create something new from something old, learn about themselves and others, help raise hopes, lift spirits, revitalize neighborhoods and reinvest in local communities. When the school year ends, the finished home is sold at cost to a family in need who agrees to dwell in the home for five years. In the fall, the cycle begins again and another property is sought for remodeling.
Community partnerships are key to the project’s success. The Marion and Linn-Mar school districts equipped students with the opportunity to learn trades, MEDCO reallocated revolving loan fund dollars to acquire the property and the city accessed Low to Moderate Income (LMI) dollars to provide an operating line of credit to pay for improvements to the home or property as needed. MEDCO and the businesses they represent hope over time to create a pipeline of students who are interested in working with those partner companies.
In addition, MEDCO has partnered with the East Central Iowa Council of Governments who recently awarded a $10,000 grant that will benefit the home buyer to help with down payment and closing cost assistance.
MEDCO also employs Dustin Kern, who is a part-time project manager and go-to person in the field for Dennis Fleege, the on-site industrial technology teacher. If Fleege is looking for a new carpet supplier, electrician or plumber, Kern brings those people to the table. Kern also helps manage the budget and free up Fleege to focus on teaching students.
Nick Glew, president of MEDCO, says it is remarkable that a program like this could be launched in the middle of a pandemic.
“As we look back at this home we remodeled this year, we ended up starting with a pretty aggressive project,” Glew said. “Once we got into it, we quickly realized that nobody had lived in the home for better than a decade. It needed more than we could discover when purchasing it. It’s been a huge success and we are pretty excited about it.”
Plans for the future include continuing to look for homes that need varying levels of TLC and reinvestment, and also finding ways to expand student involvement beyond just students who want to get their hands dirty and work hard.
Glew sees opportunities for students on the business side as well, in project management, financing, budget, and legal and appraisal processes. This year, MEDCO hosted two high school student interns who were responsible for writing stories and posting website content about work progress on the home.
“It wasn’t that many years ago that it was pretty rare for our two school districts to be working together,” Glew said. “It’s great to see our Linn-Mar students working alongside our Marion students, the building inspector working alongside our students, and our board of directors stopping by from time to time to see the work that is going on. We’re just so proud of the collaboration that is playing out as we work through this project.
“The beauty of this is that we are really doing some innovative things when it comes to education. We are teaching students with so many partners at the table. We are breaking beyond the walls of the traditional classroom. This story is one of great collaboration.”