- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The District on Monday opened the country’s first public school devoted to architecture, construction and engineering - an attempt to prepare students better for the local job market and a change from years of focusing on college prep curricula.

City officials said the decision to reopen the Northeast school as Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School was in part based on the steady demand for construction workers and to better balance academic and vocational programs in the school system.

“This futuristic school marks the launch of a new era of high-tech construction instruction in the District,” said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat. “Phelps graduates can look forward to well-paying jobs that can´t be outsourced and trades that can never be taken away.”

This is the second such school that the city has opened in the past year to strike the balance.

In March 2007, public school officials opened the Cardozo Academy of Construction, a program designed for juniors and seniors at Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest.

Phelps first opened in 1934 after the Cardozo Vocational School was moved to the school building at 26th Street and Benning Road in Northeast, a stone’s throw from RFK Stadium.

But the school was closed in 2002 because of a lack of funding.

Pamela Murray Johnson, Turner Construction Co.’s project manager at Phelps, said construction companies nationwide are pushing for more schools like Phelps because workers with the right skills are hard to find.

Miss Johnson said the shortage has been caused in part by more students going to college for professional degrees and fewer following in the footsteps of their parents.

“It’s not a glamorous industry, so kids have not been going into it,” she said. “It used to be that if your father was a carpenter, you wanted to be carpenter, too. The kids haven’t been overly eager to replace us.”

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, said the decision to let the school close in 2002 was a mistake and he expects the council to push for more vocational programs.

He called the reopening another big step toward investing in the city’s work force after city leaders steered away from vocational training in recent years.

“There was always a need for vocational training,” Mr. Gray said. “But as technology began to change, schools weren’t given the resources to keep up. It was a bad decision.”

City officials expect construction jobs to continue to increase, particularly as green architecture becomes more popular.

Jobs in the construction industry are expected to increase 10 percent over the next eight years, compared with 11 percent for all industries combined, according to a 2006 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The D.C. Department of Employee Services expects 1,400 new construction jobs in the District by 2014.

City leaders and residents say Phelps and the Cardozo academy were opened in response to concerns about the lack of job opportunities for young people and that few jobs leads to crime.

“There’s no more excuse to say people aren’t trained,” said council member Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, who led the effort to reopen Phelps. The school “is going to create a much-needed infrastructure for real job training.”

The $63 million school features state-of-the-art classrooms for electrical wiring, carpentry and computer programming and has simulators for training on construction equipment.

The building also meets the U.S. Green Building Council’s Silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Phelps alumnus Robert Whitaker, 63, a master printer and master lithographer, said he is happy to see Phelps reopened because he is tired of seeing students boxed out of the job market.

“It didn’t make sense for the young guys to be failing they way they were failing because they don’t know how to do anything,” Mr. Whitaker said. “The great thing about this is you can go to college or you can go to work.”

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