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Local high school building trades class is back in action

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Marion Trades Class

(WSIL) -- For the first time since the pandemic began, the Marion High School Building Trades Class returned to the construction site. In August, 11 students started work on a three-bedroom, two-bath house in a subdivision off Old Creal Springs Rd.

"It's a great neighborhood," said Lester James, building trades instructor at Marion High School. "This subdivision sells very quickly. For a starter family, a family with young children, this would be a great neighborhood to bring their children up in."
James says the program has been around for nearly 40 years. In the 80s, he went through the same program, and nine years ago, he returned to Marion to take over as the instructor.
"It's a unique program," James said. "According to the state superintendent a couple of years ago when I talked to him, Marion high school was one of six in the state of Illinois that was still building an actual house that was sold on the open market."
In the 80s, James says most towns around the area had a program like the building trades class, but for some reason those ended to where Marion remains one of the few in the state.
"The administration and board have been committed to this program, and this program is very unique, and it teaches all those skills," said James, "They can teach management skills and mentoring skills."
This is the third house in the subdivision, but the first since the pandemic began in March 2020. James says it's been a difficult transition, but he and his students are glad to be back on-site building again.
"We were finishing up the second house in this subdivision in March of 2020 whenever school got shut down," James explained. "I actually had students come back on their own time in May and June of 2020, and we finished the house, even though we didn't have school, we finished the house, the few students that could and myself, and the school district was able to get that house on the market and get it sold."
The class has 11 students, featuring six juniors and five seniors. Each has their own role in raising the house and reaching the build deadline.
"For the juniors, this will be the first year on a job site," said James. "For the most part, they provide support and do a lot of the labor. The seniors, ideally, would have done this the year before, and they know the flow of how things are supposed to operate, and they show the juniors how to do it. That way, we have an ongoing cycle going on there."
That's how things are supposed to work, but James says his group is in a unique position regarding job-site experience because of the pandemic.
"What [the pandemic] did last year is it took that senior function away from this year, so basically this year I have 11 students, but this is basically their first year being on a job site," said James. "Even though they're seniors, and I do rely on them to be my leaders, they really don't have that job site experience I've had in the past."
One of the students in the program is a deaf student from Benton. James says she's on the site with her interpreter working alongside the others, and he commends her drive and commitment to the program.
"These other students work with her, as you can see, they work with her on how to try and gain a skill she's very interested in the construction industry," said James.
" I think it's really important for someone who's going to be in this career that they know they're expected to show up on time and these students show up on the job site at 8 o'clock in the morning, and I expect them to be here, and on days we're pouring concrete I expect them to be here at 7 AM and they do that voluntarily."
James stresses an essential part of the is not just hammering nails and cutting wood, but maximizing their efforts and being thoughtful when staying on budget.
"I talk with them a lot about design, and we talk about budget," said James. "We're always talking about money on the project. Whenever a board is cut wrong, that's money taken from the budget. We talk about making mistakes. Actually [Tuesday] morning, we talked about quality control and slowing down and doing a better job of building the walls."
All in all, James says the program is teaching a life skill that students, whether they pursue a career in construction or not, will benefit them for years to come.
"I tell the students that the skills they learn in this program are going to save them 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars over their lifetime," said James. "But just the fact they're learning how to work, show up on time, have expectations for the quality of their work and be responsible for their mistakes whenever they're made, and they have to correct them, those are real-world life skills they can use at any job."
James hopes his students take pride in the work they do, knowing they're providing a quality built home.
"I talk to these kids daily, and even how much they've done so far, they're proud of what they've accomplished on the house," said James. "When they start seeing the walls go up and they start seeing the house and the way it's put together, they start feeling a sense of accomplishment."

The house is scheduled for completion at the end of next year.