Building Academic Success One House at a Time
It’s not every day that teenage boys are moved to tears, but it happens on a regular basis at Howenstine High Magnet School, a service-learning magnet high school in Tucson, Arizona.
At Howenstine, students in the Arizona Career and Technical Education program work on a Habitat for Humanity house as part of the school’s community and service learning outreach. For most of the year, the lot adjacent to the woodshop rings with the sound of hammers, power saws, and the lively shouts of students happily at work.
But when they’re finished with their part of the construction project and the Habitat House is about to be moved to its permanent site, the students meet the Tucson family who will call the house home. It’s a powerful moment with lots of warm handshakes and hugs, and many of the students well up with emotion — even the boys with the toughest swagger.
The tears are quickly wiped away in embarrassment, but math and drafting teacher Peter Coston says he sees something more in his students’ eyes.
“I can see the pride and confidence that they may rarely experience,” he says. “They enjoy the feelings of success and respect from the house recipients, as well as from teachers, administrators, fellow students, and their own family. I can tell how meaningful it is to them by the way they walk and talk as they put on the tool belts, hard hats and safety glasses on their way out to work on the ‘Habitat House’.”
Howenstine was selected to be a part of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign because of dedicated staff like Coston, its collaborative approach to improving the school’s performance, and its service-learning focus. Service-learning is praised by NEA and the education community because research shows it boosts achievement, builds leadership and strengthens ties to the community.
Coston says the work of the Priority Schools Campaign and a School Improvement Grant have helped the school make AYP and increase test scores, but the support has also given teachers a say in the kind of policies that will help them achieve what they know is best for their school and their students – like targeted professional development.
“During my first year at Howenstine, teaching only math, I was trained in the service-learning teaching methodology and participated in a district-wide training program to integrate academic math standards into the construction curriculum,” he says. “All construction class students are required to complete lessons in construction math and, as of this year, drafting. I’m excited to be integrating algebra, geometry and 21st century computer skills into the students’ learning through the drafting class.”
Improved math skills lead to better skills on the construction side because the CTE program integrates comprehensive work skills standards with traditional academic standards. Coston is able to collaborate with the woodshop/construction teacher, as well with community partners to increase student knowledge of applied mathematics.
“Part of what we do in CTE is work with the local business community to help integrate real-world work skills into our practices,” he says. “We get a lot of input from builders on what skills they need from their employees. Problem-solving and strategic thinking skills are essential for both the math classroom and the jobsite.”
The builders also want high school diplomas from their employees, and the Habitat project keeps at-risk students from dropping out. Some kids come to Howenstine for the individualized attention and small class sizes, but Coston and his colleagues agree that most stay there because of the real-world experiences they get through service-learning projects like the Habitat House.
Working on the house, however, is a privilege they must earn through high marks in all of their classes and the students work hard to attain that privilege.
“They do the work in their traditional academic classes every day so they can go outside and do what gives them a sense of purpose and belonging,” says Coston. “By putting students in an active, hands-on working environment, they feel more comfortable and more receptive to the required academics than they do in a traditional classroom. And like other extracurricular activities, such as sports, clubs, and trips, their participation requires them to maintain their grades in other classes.”
Matthew Dominguez, a junior, says the Habitat for Humanity project helps him in math, but also in reading and comprehension – there are lots of construction manuals he and his fellow students have to pore over before they begin working on the different sections of the house.
Dominguez has been in the construction class for three years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn about building. He says when he has a home of his own, he’ll know how to make repairs, remodel rooms, or put on an addition. But what he values the most about the project is helping his community.
“The best part is that you help a family out,” Dominguez says. “It makes me feel better about myself and it shows that I care about my community when building the Habitat House for a family that can’t afford one.”