By Elizabeth McGowan
Cassandra Rosales-White remembers feeling swarms of butterflies turning somersaults in her stomach when she walked into her very first carpentry class at the beginning of her sophomore year at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School.
“I didn’t know how to read a blueprint or a tape measure,” recalled Rosales-White, now a junior at the high school in Northeast Washington, D.C. “And I was afraid that was the first thing Mr. Hughes would ask me to do.”
However, it turned out that teacher Kevin Hughes, a journeyman carpenter, was sensitive to her case of the jitters. He defused any tension by deploying humor and a light touch to introduce his classroom of willing rookies to screwdrivers, hammers, levels, speed squares, power drills, sanders, table saws and a slew of other tools that were foreign to most of them.
Since those initial shaky days of autumn 2011, Rosales-White and her classmates have learned to wield a measuring tape with aplomb and crack the hieroglyphic code of blueprints. They’ve crafted paper towel holders, stepstools, personalized toolboxes and classroom doors. As well, they’ve mastered high-tech equipment such as the computer numerical control machine that can be programmed to transform a piece of wood into a simple hall pass or an intricate sign complete with type, artwork and other flourishes.
But the wood for these projects isn’t free. To stretch their dollars for supplies and equipment, school administrators at Phelps have linked with local organizations that can offer the resources they often need to offer a top-notch education to high-schoolers studying carpentry; welding; plumbing; electricity; heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration; architecture; and engineering.
Enter Community Forklift.
As part of its outreach mission, the Forklift provides $100 worth of materials on a monthly basis to Phelps. Teachers from the different disciplines rotate their trips to the 40,000-square foot Edmonston warehouse, depending on who needs what and when.
Hughes’s turn cropped up last September.
“When they told me to check it out, I broke my neck to get there,” said the carpentry teacher, remembering how Forklift staffers welcomed him and were unfazed when he spent four hours sifting through indoor and outdoor wood piles in search of pine boards at least 10 feet long. “I was jumping around like it was Christmas when I got all of that wood. That’s what we really needed.”
Hughes didn’t stop with lumber. He also delved into the Forklift’s hardware section in search of an assortment of screws, nails, bolts and hinges, and an array of hand tools. He offers lessons with the latter to remind students of the 21st century that carpenters could be productive long before electrons flowed from outlets so readily.
As part of its pursuit of doing well by doing good, the Community Forklift has formed alliances with dozens of schools and nonprofit organizations. In fact, donations and loans to such entities reached $34,000-plus in 2012, almost double the figure from 2011.
Phelps administrators actually have a stranger to thank for linking the school with the Forklift. Olatundun Teyibo, the high school’s career and technical education coordinator, was attending an Anacostia River cleanup event last spring, when a fellow participant noticed she was wearing a T-shirt featuring a national robotics competition that a team from Phelps enters annually.
“I didn’t have any idea who he was,” Teyibo recalled. “But he saw that T-shirt and told me if I had anything to do with robotics, I needed to connect with the Community Forklift.”
She realized he was spot-on after making a beeline for the Forklift’s booth at the cleanup event.
“What helps us is the easy access to materials,” Teyibo said about the bond forged that day. “The school system’s central office is supportive but there are times when teachers from all classes have projects where they need something at the last minute. They can find it at the Forklift.”
That sentiment resonates with Hughes. Having extra lumber on hand this school year assured him that his junior and senior carpentry classes would have enough to complete their individual work, in addition to their team projects—octagonal picnic tables with attached benches that will eventually grace the school’s campus.
At Phelps, this has actually evolved into a case of dueling picnic tables. After the juniors announced their intent to build a table from scratch, the seniors opted to make it a competition as well as their capstone project, required for graduation.
Rosales-White and the rest of the plucky juniors are determined not to be outdone by their elders. In their school’s airy and up-to-date carpentry workshop—which is splashed with generous dollops of natural light from skylights and king-size, arched windows—the students measure once, then twice, before cutting pieces for their picnic table.
“At first, it’s daunting,” said junior Nakiya Perry as she reviewed a sheet illustrating various wood stains and paints. “When we looked at the wood and the plans, we thought, ‘We’re not going to be able to do this.’ And then one day we decided we would do it. Our teacher has taught us well. His voice is always there to motivate us.”
“With carpentry, you can see something you did and you be like, wow, I took the time and effort to do that,” chimed in junior Judia Williams.
Hughes watched with a bemused expression as the juniors discussed the eye-popping paint job they’re planning for their table and how they wanted to affix their names to the finished product.
“I’m kind of old school,” Hughes noted as an aside. “But because they built it, I’m letting them do it their way.”
The reinvented Phelps, off the District’s Benning Road on 704 26th St. NE, reopened in 2008 with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. For instance, Hughes’s carpentry students can qualify as second-year apprentices if they graduate from the Mid-Atlantic Carpenters Training Center in Prince George’s County. He encourages all of his students to attend college so they can complement what they’ve learned at Phelps.
Rosales-White said she has found hands-on work to be surprisingly liberating. Although her confidence has blossomed as she has became more adept with the tools and vocabulary of the carpentry trade, she isn’t sure exactly what avenue she’ll pursue upon graduating in 2014. Right now, she is considering a degree in criminal justice after first proving to her mother that she can be financially independent.
In the meantime, it’s clear she and Hughes have developed an enviable rapport with a balanced give and take.
“When she first came here, I think she wanted to beat me up,” Hughes said with a laugh as Rosales-White rolled her brown eyes. “Now she’s one of my best students.”