Donning hard hats, Flathead and Glacier high school students last week welcomed state and local school officials, as well as representatives from the housing industry, to a Kalispell worksite that doubles as their classroom.
The students are part of Brock Anderson’s homebuilding class, which is constructing a house from the ground up for the third straight year. Flathead High School students built the first two homes, but this year’s project is a joint effort with Glacier High School.
Thirty-five students from both schools have been gathering at a worksite on Corporate Drive in west Kalispell for two class periods each weekday since school began in August, learning every aspect of the homebuilding process and putting their knowledge into action. When the finished home goes on the market in May, the students will walk away with skills that could serve as the foundation for a career or perhaps just come in handy when remodeling their bathroom someday.
“I think the program goes way beyond an apprentice program,” John Casalegno, from the construction firm Hammerquist Casalegno, told a crowd of school officials, media, students and housing industry representatives assembled at the worksite on Jan. 11. “It gives them real-life involvement in the industry.”
To hammer home the real-world need for the skills learned in Anderson’s class, Bill Schottelkorb, a partner with Western Building Center, pointed to Casalegno and other builders in the room and said: “They’d trade their right arm for 10 good workers. They’re begging.”
The featured guest of the day was Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, a Billings Republican elected as the state’s top school official in 2016. Arntzen, who spoke later in the day at the Montana Contractors Association’s annual convention at Kalispell’s Hilton Garden Inn, was in town to promote her Montana Ready initiative, which she calls “an investment in the future of our state.”
The Montana Ready initiative is a partnership between Arntzen’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI), the Montana Contractors Association and the Montana Building and Industry Association. In 2017, the partners coordinated events with East Helena Public Schools, Havre High School and MSU-Northern to facilitate conversations on active worksites between students and construction professionals about career opportunities.
The OPI has also been working with the state university system and the Montana Youth Challenge Academy “to ensure that all students are aware of pathways for post-secondary success.”
“My job is to help you succeed in any avenue, any pathway,” Arntzen told the Flathead and Glacier students.
Anderson, the high school teacher who runs the homebuilding course, notes that it takes a community effort to power his program. For one, Kirk Hammerquist and Tim McLean, who have worked together in construction for decades, volunteer every day at the worksite, lending their expertise and allowing Anderson to split his 35 students into group sizes more conducive to learning.
Also, Glacier Bank provided the construction loan, while Denman Construction oversees the billing process. Other businesses have contributed materials and expertise, including but not limited to Western Building Center, LHC and Northwest Drywall.
“That’s what it takes to get a program like this going,” Anderson said.
Each student will receive a pre-apprenticeship certificate in carpentry from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
“That’s huge on kids’ resumes,” Anderson said.
The program has set up a 501(c)(3), and funds from the sale of the 2,000-square-foot home will go into an account that already has money from the first two sales. Anderson hopes by the fifth year, enough funds will be accumulated for the program to forgo construction loans and self-fund future projects.
Anderson said his students are gaining highly valuable skills that will help in daily life and potentially open avenues to careers, perhaps in general contracting or engineering, or in fields such as HVAC and plumbing, all of which are crucial trades across the country and especially in a booming Flathead Valley.
“They get to touch every facet of home construction,” Anderson said. “They’ll be able to fix their own stuff in their homes, they’ll be a smart consumer, and if they go into college for engineering or architecture, they will have that foundational baseline knowledge of what it takes to build a home.”