- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2006

Imagine what it must take to get someone who initially can’t multiply 2 times 2 to get a general equivalency diploma, a substitute for a high-school diploma. Now imagine achieving that in four to six months’ time.

This is the accomplishment — most of the time — of an education program in Alexandria that simultaneously teaches carpentry and academics to young people at risk who, if successful, are guaranteed an opportunity to be apprentices in the local carpenter’s union and are on their way to becoming productive, responsible citizens.

The students are high-school dropouts for the most part, the kind that Executive Director Joe Youcha says normally give up hope in fifth grade and drop out by the 10th.

According to a 2005 report from the Manhattan Institute, only 32 percent of American high school students will graduate with the skills they need to succeed in college or work.

The 14-year-old Boat Builders Apprentice program, which has 250 alumni, is run by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation in conjunction with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Student apprentices spend four hours a day in a classroom and another four learning woodworking skills in a real shop by building real boats.

“We operate on a tradesman’s schedule,” Mr. Youcha says. “7:30 to 3:30.”

Recruits come as referrals from local courts, refugee centers and adult-education programs. Sixteen young men are divided into groups based on a computer test of their academic skills when they enter.

About four of them will graduate every four months each year. The next ceremony, planned for Sept. 22, will most likely include two young Ethiopians who have been in this country for only four months. They first must take the GED exam being given this week. Two others in the group are being held for an additional two months.

More than 80 percent make it through the first two-week trial period in the program, and 100 percent of recent graduates are considered success stories, defined by Mr. Youcha as being in school or keeping a job. Several currently work 10 hours a day, six days a week, rebuilding a roof at the Pentagon, getting paid union scale. The success rate was lower when students were learning their academics “off campus” in an outsourcing arrangement, he says. Even so, their students were doing much better than those enrolled in the union’s regular apprentice program.

Seeing the young men hard at work in a non-air-conditioned, unheated shop handling the geometry and drafting tasks involved in creating a boat from the ground up, it’s easy to imagine that “pride of craft” is the motivation and perhaps a sense of camaraderie, although there is little bantering that goes on and no IPods in evidence.

The real secret, the reality factor, is money, Mr. Youcha says. The program builds lives while the youths build boats, with money as the lure. “They think of it as a job. We pay them to learn.” The value also lies with what he calls “the socialization. Being able to keep them in the community.”

To be successful, he adds, “they have to know they can’t walk two sides of the street at the same time.”

“What we do that is different is contextual learning. You have to motivate them. Historically, we know it works,” Mr. Youcha says. He points to literacy programs run by civil-rights groups to enroll voters in the segregated South of the 1960s. “Sharecroppers were taught to read and write in 40 hours.” And he notes the efforts during World War II to train people to build ships and airplanes on the assembly line in record time.

As student apprentices they are paid about a dollar more per hour than the minimum wage, and are docked — 25 cents and 50 cents off their paycheck — for such delinquencies as late arrival or being absent without due cause. Three violations and they are “fired.” Their paycheck increases along with gains in knowledge and skill.

Graduates can count on receiving $14 or more an hour in a starting job as a union apprentice that, after 90 days, makes them eligible for a training school that then gives them an additional $6 an hour in benefits. With a GED, they are qualified eventually for further training that can lead to construction management positions paying much more.

“If you don’t have a job, it’s hard to have a feeling of self-worth,” is Mr. Youcha’s credo. Furthermore, he adds, it’s not enough just to earn minimum wage. “You look at what you need to do to put a roof over your head, to take care of family needs, and to get a piece of the American dream.”

The secret of how seemingly disaffected young men learn to cope with algebra in concentrated form probably lies in the low teacher-student ratio. One teacher stood at the blackboard recently coaching six students in quadratic equations; beside him was the “regular” math instructor. Algebra is taught for the GED exam. Geometry is more immediately applicable for carpentry work.

The program employs six full-time staff and 10 regular volunteers, including a retired Navy architect. Some of their income stems from the sale of several hundred “family friendly” boat kits that Mr. Youcha says are ideal for use in community programs across the country. Their prime model is called Bevin’s Skiff, a 12-footer named for Mr. Youcha’s late dog. These sales help put money into the foundation. To this end, too, the foundation sponsors an annual Family Boatbuilding Weekend — taking place Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 this year — when the kits get sold and made on-site in Old Town’s Waterfront Park.

In addition, students are taught on commissioned projects, using newly acquired math and drafting skills. One recent commission was creating a replica of a historic 16-foot “Tiger” fantail electric launch on display in a museum in Clayton, N.Y.

Mr. Youcha, a modest, reserved man with steely resolve, has something of a Midas touch when it comes to publicity. Already the program has been featured in Reader’s Digest and reportedly will appear soon on NBC’s Nightly News.

He explains his motivation as, “I like building boats and I like working with people.”

He grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., with his personal inspiration being a father whom he says was “at risk” as a first-generation immigrant but who went on to become a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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