With her pristine lacquered rainbow fingernails holding the drill and her long braided hair pulled back, Wal’Deyunna Lee leveled the 2x4s before she started driving the screw into the window frame.
Lee, a junior, doesn’t necessarily want to go into a trade-based career after finishing high school. She wants to be a flight attendant someday.
But, she also wants to build her own house when she grows up and maybe construct one of those tiny houses she sees on TV, and this is where she’s going to quite literally build the foundation to do so.
The new girls-only carpentry class offered at Springfield High School for the 2019-2020 school year has 22 students, showing administrators that a non-traditional workforce is waiting to fill understaffed work sites across the state.
Instructor Kendra Keen has been with Livingston Parish Schools for two years, and says she’s seen only two girls in her carpentry classes until now. This past school year, though, she and district Career and Technical Education coordinator Staci Polozola made a conscious effort to recruit young women for the program, thinking if one joined so would her friends. The level of interest warranted offering a female-only class.
Now, the students wear Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It” shirts in the workshop. They talk about the importance of taking off their jewelry before going onto a worksite, and they end their classes with a little sawdust in their ponytails.
“It’s just a lot more girl power, and they’re more likely to jump in and take action and be excited to do things versus taking the ‘I’m going to look, listen and watch first before I initiate’ (attitude),” Keen said.
Lee and sophomore Payton Barnum worked together on building a window frame during a recent class. They and the other girls measured their lumber, sawed the pieces down to size and then joined them in a frame shape, ensuring each piece was level. For many it was the first hands-on project they'd started.
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Both Barnum and Lee said carpentry had interested them before, but they were too intimidated to sign up knowing all the boys would already know their way around power tools and fearing they would be left behind.
“The boys are more advanced but in this class it’s more like we’re all on the same level and it’s actually a lot easier than I thought,” Barnum said.
Both Keen and Polozola agreed that intimidation was the top-rated factor in why the girls hadn’t signed up for the class before. Having Keen, a female agriculture and carpentry teacher, at the helm of the class helps too. She herself has her eyelashes and nails done, and during a recent Friday morning class she wore a feminine leopard-print “Game Day” shirt with matching sneakers.
“It’s kind of cool to think you can be this person that is beautiful and vibrant and intelligent but also be this person that’s hard-working and has the skills to sell themselves,” Keen said.
Livingston Parish Schools returned to class on Friday.
The girls’ success will likely spread to other schools by next year, Polozola said, as Springfield acted as a pilot to gauge interest.
Polozola said the district plans to expand its skill-based class offerings, in particular working with area companies to give the students enough experience to know whether they might be interested in a certain field before graduation.
Walker High School is in its second year of offering a scaffolding class that has students gain experience in scaffolding, insulation and coatings, under the leadership of local business Apache Industries.
Project manager Trey Granier instructs the class, which operates like a worksite. The nine boys currently enrolled each have a set of personal protective equipment and their own set of tools, just like they would in the field. The class is after school, so Granier wants them to treat it like going to work.
He said they start each lesson with a safety meeting before diving into the hands-on work, and each of the students will gain certification after a year in the program if they’re successful. Many will go on to work with Apache, or another local company, he said.
“Not only do we develop a multicraft workforce out of this but we also develop workforces in the communities where really all our customers are located. … It’s the opportunity for them that’s really the biggest factor,” he said.
As the district’s lead on non-academic career paths, Polozola has long sought out ways to get students involved in career and technical education classes, whether they want to pursue those fields as a job or not.
If they decide to go to college, then great, but they’ll go in knowing how to hang a ceiling fan or wire an electrical socket, she said.
“As a district I try and look at populations that are underserved and populations where male or female representation is underserved,” she said. “The nursing program is loaded with ladies and I struggle to get the young men interested, and it’s the same in the trades. Obviously we don’t have a lot of young women so I work hard to make sure they know that’s an option for them.”