From the ground up, students remodel homes, reshape futures: Part II
Dennis Fleege has a saying he shares with his students, “Expect the unexpected.” As the on-site industrial technology teacher of the Marion Community Build program that renovates old homes for resale, he also said that once you get into construction you never really leave it.
On both counts, he knows from what he speaks since he previously worked full-time for eight years in construction before going back to college at age 28 to earn a teaching license. After teaching math at Linn-Mar High School and now in his third year at Marion High School, he teaches industrial technology, woods and metal classes, and teaches students from both school districts enrolled in the Community Build program.
Fleege says a Community Build remodel versus a new build is a different ball game, but there’s really great things students can learn from both. He says finding ways to work with the city on remodeling houses that are in bad shape is a great way for students to gain new skills, learn how to fix things, problem solve, remodel their own first homes, invest in their community, and help rebuild their neighborhoods even if they don’t want to go into a trade.
A parent of seven children ages 3 to 11 (“I’m always patching something with that many kids!”), he speaks with confident, encouraging ease to his Community Build program students about a construction remodel that some would otherwise find daunting.
“I always tell them, just try it. What’s the worst that could happen?” Fleege said. “If you try something like roofing and decide you don’t like it, you just know what kind of job not to take later on, but at least you know how to roof your garage if you have to. You may find this is not your favorite thing, but the more things you know the better off you are, and the better your opportunities for income,” Fleege said.
Fleege says the Community Build program is also a good opportunity for students to interact with students from other districts and he finds the students get along well, even though they start off with a varying degrees of knowledge and skill levels. Some students come in knowing nothing so it’s a steep learning curve. Others have done a little construction but have never completed a project, like a garage, and now have a chance to see how it all goes together.
“A couple students said they did not know how one thing affects the next thing down the road,” Fleege said. “Like when we were tearing off of old siding, a couple students messed things up when they were tearing it apart and then realized how much work it was to get it fixed and how much of an issue it caused to resolve it.”
The Community Build experience also helps bolster students’ problem-solving skills.
“Students are given a situation and have to ask themselves, ‘How do I make this work?’,” Fleege said. “I will tell students what I think, but they have to make it work. Or I demonstrate how to do it, or what might work, but not all cases are going to succeed, so they have to adjust it to what they are doing. Angles might change, etc. With remodels there is always something that is never going to be perfect. How do you adapt to it?”
And there’s nothing like a pandemic to amplify challenges when learning to adapt on a job site. Even so, the Community Build program has been going strong throughout the entire school year. Students wear masks when working inside, and can remove them outside if properly social distanced. Sometimes, adjustments are made if wearing masks fogs up safety glasses which poses a serious hazard for students using a miter box or table saw. Schools provide drills and saws, but students are responsible for providing their own basic hand tools needed on a job site, such as a hammer or tool belt, which students do not share.
Fleege also arranges for guest speakers, like plumbers and electricians, to visit the site, share their knowledge and interact with the students. However, this year it has been somewhat hampered by the side effects of the pandemic and the derecho where contractors now find themselves swamped with work and less available for on-site visits. Yet another tangible illustration for students learning first-hand about the need to be adaptable.
“One student had never done drywall, so I had him work on a patch in the ceiling where there was a hole someone had attempted to patch,” Fleege said. “He took his time and it took three or four coats, and when he was done he thought it turned out great. He was really happy and excited about what he had accomplished. When we painted it you couldn’t even tell he had patched it.”
Fleege says his current group of students prefers the outdoors, so siding and roofing are popular choices.
“They complain most about painting,” Fleege said. “We’ve been inside doing some of the touch ups and nit-picky tasks. You could tell they were kind of dragging a little bit. But now the energy is coming back because we can get outside in the nice weather.”
That is except for one senior in the class who discovered he liked to paint. When contractors needed help and staff from the local Sherwin Williams paint store reached out to find students interested in painting, that student responded and landed himself a job. Now he works for a contractor in the morning and joins the Community Build class in the afternoon.
One might ask, which has undergone the greatest transformation, the student or the remodeled home? As Dennis Fleege advises his students, “Expect the unexpected.”