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Boys Town in the News

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Kara Neuverth
Media Relations Director
402-498-1305
Kara.Neuverth@boystown.org

Lauren Laferla
Media Relations Specialist
402-498-1273
Lauren.Laferla@boystown.org
Twitter: @LaurenLaferla

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Boys Town’s Rehab Vision Remains, Now Sharpening Minds and Skills

Photo Credit to Andrew Dickinson of The New York Times

This article is written by Brett Schulte of The New York Times . It was posted January 18, 2015 at nytimes.com.

BOYS TOWN, Neb. — Juan Lopez, 17, lives in this home for wayward and ​neglected youths because he “got in trouble back in school, skipping and taking drugs.”
Here he got the nickname Guns, because of a sudden affinity for carrying a piece — it shoots roofing nails.N

ow sober and close to graduation from Boys Town High School, Juan wants to be a roofer. “Construction feels like you’ve accomplished something,” he said. And he just plain likes shooting a nail gun.

Juan labored on a recent Tuesday alongside a few other teenagers an hour before the first bell rang, racking up elective credit hours while cutting and hanging siding for a shed they built in a new course called Construction Trades.

That shed — the first for the school — holds a lot of hopes and dreams for the storied institution of Boys Town, which began as an orphanage in Nebraska in 1917 under the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan, a Catholic priest. In the decades since, the orphanage has grown into a juvenile rehabilitation center with a national reach.

The school in eastern Nebraska will undergo a $1.5 million remodeling.

After about two decades of a typical curriculum in its middle school and high school, Boys Town is overhauling its class offerings to refocus on Father Flanagan’s original vision of vocational classes, which are increasingly in vogue. Now, they have a fancy new name: career-readiness courses.

“If I can get these kids some skills and a tool belt, they can walk out of here the day they graduate and get a job,” said Chuck Lambert, who teaches Boys Town’s two new construction classes. “They can survive.”

Here, survival is no abstraction. The majority of Boys Town students come from abusive or otherwise dysfunctional homes. Some struggle just to make it through high school, eliminating college as an option.

For years, Boys Town sent as many as half of its graduating class — usually 90 to 100 students total — into the military, which provided needed structure and career opportunities. A few years ago, those numbers plummeted, the result of a smaller, increasingly selective military. Last year, just one student made the cut. In 2013, zero.

In his search for solutions, Jeff Peterson, the senior director of home campus operations, found that many high schools were reorienting toward producing skilled workers.

The public school system in nearby Grand Island built the $5 million Career Pathways Institute, an old warehouse now outfitted for instruction in welding, general construction, information technology and manufacturing. It was started after complaints about a lack of skilled labor for farm machinery manufacturer Case IH and other businesses.

Mr. Peterson heard similar needs. One contractor said he was “going nuts” because his workers could not identify a square; meanwhile, skilled laborers could earn a premium. “I talked to our roofing guy, talked to our construction guys. We met with union folks and trade groups,” he said. “They said the same thing: ‘If a kid can frame, he’ll start out at $3 or $4 higher than a general laborer.’”

Mr. Peterson’s discoveries follow the findings of a 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education recommending technical training as a way to solve a growing crisis of unemployed or underemployed young people.

Walking through the wide, industrial-feeling cinder-block halls of the old vocational center at Boys Town, Mr. Peterson called the place a work in progress. “Thirty or 40 years ago, this building was all about careers,” he said. Gradually, shop classes gave way to college-prep courses. When the school decided to pursue trade classes again, “we didn’t even have a hammer.”

Today, Mr. Lambert’s construction shop — roaring with power tools — is an early stage of a $1.5 million remodel that will include welding stations, a small-engine repair shop, a horticulture lab with a greenhouse and kitchens for the culinary arts. Automotive repair will return to the room with the ventilation system and big garage doors that is now occupied by the Junior R.O.T.C.

The new classes build on a longstanding Health Occupation course, taught by a registered nurse in a classroom with hospital beds filled with mannequins. Graduates leave as certified nursing assistants. “For the past nine years, no one has failed,” said Stevie Gass, who teaches the course. “I’m proud of that.” One student is now working on a master’s degree in nursing.

The move back to trades has not been easy, however. Finding certified teachers who are experts in a specific field, such as automotive repair, has proved difficult. Boys Town already anticipates having to pair experts with teachers, doubling the cost of faculty per course.

Nevertheless, next year, Boys Town expects as many as 200 of its 375 students to be enrolled in a career-readiness course.

Mr. Lambert is one of the few certified teachers with a background in construction. He believes that vocational training can help provide a general education as well. “How important is math in construction, guys?” he asked the students in his Intro to Trades class. A few, in unison, responded: “Very important.”

But coursework here looks a bit different. Mr. Lambert quizzed students for the final exam. He held up a utility knife, a bar clamp, a chisel, a pry bar, a speed square and other tools as students identified them aloud.

Most students in the class expressed interest in pursuing trades after graduation. Jeremiah Neth, 16, is at Boys Town because of drugs, alcohol and violation of probation. “The job force at this point is a lot of hands-on stuff,” he explained. “If you know how to read a measuring tape, you can at least build a shed for somebody.”

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