Green Bay students built a $200,000 house and learn building skills

GREEN BAY – Last fall, the 331 S. Irwin Ave. in Green Bay was nothing more than a vacant lot with a few trees.

Now there is a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, built largely by high school students.

The house was built as part of the Green Bay School District’s Bridge Building and Renovation Program and its partnership with NeighborWorks Green Bay.

Bridges is a work-based learning experience where students learn how to build a house while earning high school and college credits at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

Professional teams are brought in to do the more complex parts of the construction such as the plumbing, the pouring of concrete and the wiring of the house for electricity.

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Otherwise, students spend three hours a day working on all aspects of construction. They dabble in drywalling, framing, siding, laying stairs, and installing doors and windows.

“I love seeing students discover how to do something on their own,” said Brain Frerk, the program instructor. “Even if they leave my class and never get into construction, they’ll still have those skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.”

An open house was held on August 25 when Bridges students toured the Press-Gazette, showing off the $219,900 house and their new building knowledge.

Connor Vandelaarschot, 18, of West High School, plans to pursue a career in construction. After completing the Bridges program, he said he was fully prepared.

“I feel like this program prepared me 100% because you do a little bit of everything, so I feel like we are ready for anything, any task that is given to us,” said he said of himself and his classmates.

For Ashton Xiong, also a student at West High, he decided to take the program to gain home improvement experience when he changes house in the future.

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“One thing that really interested me was real estate,” he said. “I want to buy and own, and I want to fix these houses and I don’t want to have to pay these big bucks for people to come and do it. I thought by doing this I could get this experience.”

The work involved a lot of trial and error, Vandelaarschot said.

“We were brand new to this,” Vandelaarschot said. “I feel like that’s the best way to learn, make mistakes, and learn from your mistakes.”

Sometimes this involved redoing doors, walls and relaying stairs to make sure they were perfect.

An open house is being held August 25, 2022 for a new three-bedroom home built through the Green Bay School District's Bridge Construction and Renovation Program in partnership with NeighborWorks Green Bay.

As the boys walked through the house, the first time they saw the finished product, they pointed to the walls and doors they had built – reminiscing about the work they had done.

“You make memories and you keep those memories,” said Thomas Debeck, who also went to West High. “When you’re older, you’ll walk past this house and show your grandchildren. You can say you built a house, few people can say they built a house.”

In addition to the technical skills of carpentry, students also learned vocational skills that will help them become successful employees.

“I teach them three things that will keep them going: be there on time every day, be respectful and polite, and give your employer a full day’s work for a full day’s pay,” said Frerk said. “If you do this, you will do extremely well in whatever you choose to do in life.”

Ten students participated in this year’s program, half in the new construction section and half in the renovation section.

The renovation section offers a different set of skills and experiences that require more creative problem solving, Frerk said.

Students have renovated a more than 100-year-old house on rue Van Buren, repairing water damage, widening the staircase and opening up rooms.

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“We’ve had a lot of challenges that require a lot more thought than just following a plan and building a new house,” he said. “There had to be more creative solutions in order to bring this old house up to modern code.”

Frerk’s goal when he started as an instructor five years ago was to grow the program. Attendance for next year is expected to more than double with 24 students participating.

“Our industry partners are really excited that we are expanding the program as they desperately need employees,” he said. “…They’ll have kids that they can then quickly train, get them up to speed, and get them to a job site.”

And one day these kids could have their own construction company. That’s the hope of NeighborWorks Green Bay CEO and President Noel Halverson.

“We want to see vans named after some of these kids in the future,” he said.

One of the Xiongs’ favorite memories was of their companion Jack: a large orange rabbit who sat outside while they worked.

“He was just hanging around…and watching us all the time,” Xiong said. “We have no idea where he came from.”

Vandelaarschot, Xiong and Debeck said emphatically that they would recommend other students to participate in the program and not just for the skills they learned.

“By being with these guys, you sustain things like that for a long time and you make a connection,” Debeck said. “Actually, throughout high school, I was a quiet kid. I opened up. You helped me a lot,” he told Vandelaarschot and Xiong.

For more information about the home, visit https://nwgreenbay.org/real-estate/homes-for-sale/.

Danielle DuClos covers K-12 education in the Green Bay area as a member of the Report for America corps. She is based at the Press-Gazette in Green Bay. To contact her, email [email protected] or call 907-717-6851. Follow her on Twitter @danielle_duclos.

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