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At this Main Line private school, campus construction becomes a lab to teach students

In an unorthodox use of a school construction zone, The Haverford School has turned its middle-school building project into an observatory classroom for students.

Science teacher Mario Masso, left, talks to his students at the construction site at The Haverford School in Haverford.  The school is using a campus construction project to teach middle-school students about the building trades and to demonstrate real-world applications of lessons.
Science teacher Mario Masso, left, talks to his students at the construction site at The Haverford School in Haverford. The school is using a campus construction project to teach middle-school students about the building trades and to demonstrate real-world applications of lessons.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Instead of sitting in their science classroom on the Main Line one morning last week, a group of boys in navy blue blazers and khaki shorts looked up at workers in hard hats standing on steel beams that will help shape the third floor of their new middle school.

“How do the guys get up there?” one asked. Another wondered about one man who was hammering: “If he fell, would he get really injured?”

Amelia Einbender-Lieber, an architect with WRT Design, had told the boys that “these guys do this all day and they don’t really fall." The assurance did not seem to stem their curiosity.

In an unorthodox use of a school construction site, the Haverford School, a K-12 boys’ private school, is using its middle school building project both to enhance lessons and also to expose students to job prospects they may not otherwise consider.

“This is about careers, right? Pretty cool stuff,” said Joe Bello, president of the contractor, Adams Bickel Associates, facing the boys on a platform his company built overlooking the construction site.

Bello told the boys — all seventh-grade students — that the project was “like a football team. Everybody has to do their job for this to go up.”

A primer on the building trades might seem unusual at a school that charges $36,000 for middle school tuition and promotes its alumni “making their mark" as government ambassadors, Broadway actors, financial analysts, and international aid workers.

But Haverford School leaders say they want to broaden students’ opportunities and expose them to different professions. “Whether they end up building something themselves, or working in buildings as attorneys, they’re going to have a different appreciation for the building having seen this,” said headmaster John Nagl.

Across the country, interest has picked up in middle schools introducing more students to such career possibilities, in part because federal funding is now available for the first time for career and technical education at those grade levels, said Jarrod Nagurka, spokesperson for the national Association for Career and Technical Education.

“To the extent that this school is helping students see that there are a whole wide range of careers out there, that this industry might not match the stereotype you have of it and really requires some high skill to be in these careers, is great,” Nagurka said.

And Pennsylvania is placing a greater focus on exposing students to different careers. The state Future Ready Index adopted last year evaluates public schools not just on academics, but also on career readiness activities, starting in elementary school.

“Every district in the commonwealth and every career and technical center in the commonwealth are trying to get students experiences — what does it mean to apply algebra and geometry … to the world of work?” said Kirk Williard, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators, and division director for career, technical and customized education at the Chester County’s three technical college high schools.

“Sometimes," he said, "it’s as simple as an employer coming in and being a guest speaker in a classroom.”

Last year, the Central Montco Technical High School welcomed fifth graders from the Norristown, Colonial and Upper Merion districts onto its campus for career experiences, said Seth Schram, the high school’s director.

“You’re able to see if a younger child has talent and interest in something they can actually do for the rest of their life," Schram said, "as opposed to just doing something they’re told to do.”

In the case of the Haverford School, the potential future employer was already on campus. Construction of the new middle school began in July.

Bello said his company built the observation platform over the site after noticing kids “peering through the fence every day." The middle school’s leader, Jay Greytok, embraced the idea, and teachers have since scheduled lessons outside.

Last Thursday, as part of his seventh-grade science class’s study of physical and chemical changes, teacher Mario Masso led students to the construction site to listen to architect Einbender-Lieber describe how concrete is made, and the importance of laying a building foundation below the frost line. A machine rumbled in the background, transporting steel beams.

Masso, who has taught at the school for 22 years, said the project fits with the school’s efforts to help students learn beyond the classroom, and exposes them to the idea that they can pursue their interests in ways “other than going to college to get a liberal arts degree.”

As Masso’s class sat on the platform, so did students from an art class, sitting and sketching the frame of the new building school.

Ryan Meyer, a math teacher, previously took his eighth-grade algebra students to the site to help teach parallel and perpendicular lines — and put to rest any questions about the relevance of the lesson.

“Middle school students love to go, ‘When are we ever going to use this?’" Meyer said. In this case, he said, they saw the importance of the concept, listening to the construction foreman describe how exacting the workers’ measurements had to be. “It definitely caught them off-guard.”

Greytok, the head of the middle school, envisions teachers holding occasional classes at the site throughout the year, as well as letting students sign up for specific sessions. The new building is expected to open next fall.

In addition to giving kids a view into the construction process, “quite frankly, it’s fun,” Greytok said.

Two of Masso’s students, Michael Crutchlow and Avery Gordon, both 12, said the lesson was a welcome break from their normal classes.

Crutchlow was struck by how quickly their new school building has emerged on the site, while Gordon, who has long been interested in building, liked learning about the different jobs involved.

“It does look pretty fun, being up high like that,” he said.