GREAT FALLS — More than 30 students from Great Falls Public Schools got to celebrate a special achievement on Thursday afternoon before their summer break commences. That achievement is the completion of the 45h 'High School House.'
The 'High School House' is an annual program in which Great Falls Public Schools collaborates with NeighborWorks Great Falls to provide a new home for a first-time homebuyer. The process involves another collaboration. That collaboration is between Great Falls High School and CMR High School, where students from each of the schools build a house from the ground up. This year, however, students from Paris Gibson Education Center also took part in the program for the first time.
NeighborWorks Great Falls supplies the lot, arranges subcontractors, and finances the construction, while students spend eight months taking on the Montana weather and learn valuable skills as they construct the home from the ground up.
"It's been a great experience," said CMR senior Lane Mitchell. "There has been some downtime too. It's been a lot of cold, harsh days, sometimes siding the winter."
Those challenges, however, didn't stop these dedicated students from working hours on end each week.
GFHS senior AJ Mese said, "It's been fun. There is lots of good times, lots of slow times and lots of really cold times. There was also lots of warm times. Other than that, it's been really fun. It's a good time doing this."
High School House instructor Pete Pace has led the program for more than a decade. He discussed how pleased he was with the students' persistence in completing the house, despite some delays and weather-related challenges.
"I'm very proud of these kids," Pace said. "It was a tough winter to work in, but these kids knuckled up and finished this beautiful home, and I am proud of them."
The house is at 512 Sixth Avenue South and features two bedrooms, in the hopes of being the perfect size for a future homebuyer.
According to NeighborWorks Great Falls, this partnership has produced multiple advantages on all sides. The students get to work in an outdoor work site two hours a day all school year long, escaping from the confines of the classrooms. Some who were at high risk for dropping out of school stay to work on the High School House Program and graduate with their class.
The off-campus classroom settings provide real-world work environments -- snow, wind, and high temperatures -- everything a construction worker must endure. The program also equips the students for future career path decisions and useful training they can put into practice right away.
AJ Mese has been doing construction since his sophomore year. He says the 'High School House' is the first step in helping him on his path towards his career.
"You learn a lot when you go to an actual job site and you understand what you see, so the program worked out really well," Mese said.
Lane Mitchell noted that this type of program provides the everyday skills that people should know how to do.
"I'm going into the trades myself, so I'll have some experience behind me, with the last two years and and 640 hours under my belt, along with a Pre-Apprenticeship that I can actually use towards an Apprenticeship."
NeighborWorks Great Falls director Sherrie Arey said, "This building program is such a great partnership between NeighborWorks and the Great Falls Public Schools system. We couldn't do it without all of those that are in our community and helped to make it possible, whether it'd be those who donated to the school, or to our program, to make sure year after year, we have the supplies, funding and the land to be able to build another home for our community."
As more students begin to hear about the program, Arey said she hopes for some possible expansions in the future, while continuing to express the importance of skilled labor to students.
"I think Great Falls Public Schools saw the need for folks in the construction industry and the trades, way before Covid started. They have done a phenomenal job in helping students understand that this is a path towards a profession, and I can only see it growing and students understanding and embracing the skills that they can learn from this, and hopefully going back to building two homes that we are able to build year after year."
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