HCAP program not housed in your standard classroom

May 16, 2018

The students enrolled in the HCAP program took a break from working on their most recent project while Karen Kurtenbach and Ross Johnson (far right) were there to lend their expertise and guiding hands.

Granted, some of the props are what you would expect from a so-called normal classroom, but it’s hardly commonplace to see hard hats and tape measures alongside laptops and textbooks.

Clearly though, this is just how teacher Ross Johnson and facilitator Karen Kurtenbach like it. As the head cheerleaders for the High School Carpentry Apprentice Program (HCAP) at Mount Royal Collegiate in Saskatoon, they both say this is about as good as it gets.

Johnson, who has taught such traditional subjects as math and history for example, said he has found his niche working with the students in this program, and he is doubtful he could go back to a regular classroom.

It is a similar scenario for Kurtenbach, who in her words, rebranded herself as facilitator for the program rather than her previous role as an educational assistant in the classroom.

“You get to know the kids a lot better and in a very different way,” Johnson said. “It’s great to see the growth and motivation because these kids realize that this is something that can set them up for life, and so they want to succeed.”

Kurtenbach concurred, adding that working alongside this group of 18 Grade 11 and 12 students means that invariably a lot of what is happening in their respective lives is also a regular topic of conversation as the trust is built up.

“We have them for five months, and they grow so much in that time. They really start to think about their own situation and how they fit in,” she said.

Both Johnson and Kurtenbach noted how it is pretty much a weekly occurrence for a former student, who has gone through the program, to drop by for a visit. Because for many, the program has proved to be a pivotal step in their educational journey and ultimately, their career path.

In some cases for example, students have gone on to open their own businesses, largely due to the fact that they have learned virtually everything about the home-building process from start to completion.

Aside from the valuable contacts that can be established with members of the trades community, students earn six credits and can gain up to 640 hours towards their apprenticeship through the apprenticeship board and the Saskatchewan Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Kurtenbach suggested that in the majority of cases, this program is of particular appeal to those students who don’t want to sit in a classroom and would rather be involved in something more tangible, such as building a house and the feeling of success that goes with that.

“A lot of them do a 180 degree turn when they get into this program. We have had students who had a 70 percent absenteeism rate and once they are in this program, their attendance is virtually 100 percent. We have some hard, fast rules, and the kids don’t question it.”

According to Johnson, it is not uncommon for students involved in this hands-on program that some of the in-classroom learning can be brought into focus. “The whole idea of needing to know your math when you’re doing this, you see the light-bulb moment when they can get the application, and so there’s that transfer of knowledge.

“For any of these kids who might have struggled in a certain class, this builds confidence and they aren’t afraid to try. I tell them all the time we’re all going to make mistakes, but then it’s a matter of working together to find out how to fix it,” he said, acknowledging that sometimes he doesn’t show enough patience. “You have to remember they are kids, and you want them to succeed.”

Johnson said that the level of expertise that students bring could range from having no experience to those who have built a garage for example. He added that it’s neat to watch how the students become a team, with the more experienced ones soon assuming the mantle of leadership during the process.

“It’s like a real workplace. Working side by side every day there’s a real commitment to getting things done, and at the end of the project they have really accomplished something together,” Kurtenbach added.

As a female herself, Kurtenbach is conscious of trying to promote the program to an increasing number of girls–there were three last year and two this semester.

This program started as a pilot project at Bedford Road Collegiate in 2003 and it has grown to become city-wide in that all public high school students can apply to attend.

Quite aside from the learning component, there is also the reality that the program is ostensibly run like a business. That includes working to have sufficient projects for the students.

The program has been previously involved with Habitat for Humanity and the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, and has also recently built a house for the English River First Nation. The current project marks a new chapter as HCAP was contacted by a private citizen who wanted a cabin for a lot at Candle Lake.

“There is more planning involved with this program now than we’ve ever done before. We’re having to be accountants, and the whole thing is basically like running a business,” Johnson said.

Kurtenbach added that another trait that makes this like a business is the fact that upon completion, the structure has to pass the same rigid set of codes that other home builders face.

Johnson said that he has seen a significant overall shift in how the trades are viewed, both within the education sector and also by the students.

“I think a lot of that is because you can make a good living in the trades. When the kids see some of the major projects being built out there, that becomes a source of motivation for them too, and they can see themselves being a part of the industry.”

While somewhat at arm’s length from Mount Royal, the students by no means shirk time spent in a regular classroom. Although there is some flexibility with HCAP in terms of schedule, Kurtenbach said students are expected to attend the first period of the day in a classroom environment so that they still feel like a part of Mount Royal. For those who have come from other schools, they are encouraged to stay involved in the school with extracurricular activities like sports for example.

Envisioning the future, Johnson maintains that he is enjoying this epoch in his career more than any other. He also hopes there are new possibilities on the horizon.

“I don’t mind projects like this cabin for example, but ideally I would prefer that we are building houses for those who really need it and where the benefit would be the greatest. At least that’s my hope.”

Kurtenbach said it is important to keep promoting the merits of the program to students. “We want to try and provide a unique program that is challenging and beneficial to them. Best of all is the fact that sometimes they don’t even realize they are learning because they are enjoying what they are doing, and they can see the benefits and the personal growth.”