By Jody Steinberg

Jovanni Baddol puts the final touches on the electrical box for an outlet and light. Students in Cross Keys Construction Technology class framed and built classroom walls and shelves for the cosmetology class, which began sharing their classroom in January.

When DeKalb County’s public school system and Georgia Perimeter College swapped parcels of prime real estate on Womack Road two years ago so each could develop closer to their existing campuses, it seemed like a win-win for everyone.

But there was a victim. High School Technology North – north DeKalb’s career education center -–lost its campus in the swap.

The senior high school served close to 400 students from northern DeKalb high schools. Eager to start their hands-on career training, career tech students travel from their home schools for three hours daily to learn health sciences, automotives, cosmetology, computers, business and construction and more in specially-designed classrooms stocked with specialized equipment and staffed with experienced instructors.

HSTN programs were scattered across the county, but Cross Keys High School has become its new home base and main feeder school. While renovations are underway to build state-of-the-art classrooms for at least six career programs at Cross Keys, students in the construction program are making the best of the situation with frequent site visits as they watch the new wing evolve. They have also honed their skills building walls, wiring sockets and plumbing sinks to separate classrooms and create a styling area for the cosmetology class.

The construction program at Cross Keys, accredited by the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia and other professional guilds, is taught by Calvin Gray, a long-time HSTN educator.

Construction courses teach students the basics of workplace safety and construction before they branch off to specialize in masonry, plumbing, electrical or building and framing. Before they ever lift a hammer, students must learn about safety, hand tools, framing floors, power tools and more.

Program partners, including representatives from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, companies and professional associations, visit the schools to run workshops and mini courses. Students who are working in the field also may attend weekly or biweekly classes sponsored by employers and other professional associations.

“It’s like a (college) major,” Gray said. “Students decide what they want to specialize in. [Career Tech] starts them out in a career path and they can choose which way they want to go.”

Tech students must still earn a high school diploma to graduate, but those who also take technology courses can have their diplomas stamped with industry certifications. Career Tech student coordinator Glenda Bonds arranges internships and apprenticeships for the students, and often monitors their progress after graduation.

During recent renovations of Cross Keys, construction students have benefited from having a front-row seat to a major construction site. To practice their skills, they’ve modified their classrooms – building walls, wiring lights and plumbing sinks so they could share classroom space with the cosmetology classes.

“It has been more helpful to be at an inconvenience because we are building what we need for construction class,” said Gray.

In addition to practicing skills in class, Gray’s students can attend professional conferences and test their skills and knowledge against students from other schools. Gray is proud of his students, touting the accomplishments and career paths of his graduates, and displaying their profiles on the wall, while he encourages current students to hone their skills for regional skills competitions.

Last year, HSTN earned the silver medal for their performance at OSHA national competitions.

“This year, we are determined to be national champions. We’re looking for gold at the OSHA,” says Gray. He, Bonds and students have also set their sites on the SkillsUSA conference this June. They plan to take an 18-student delegation.

What’s next? Gray and Bonds boast about their graduate: some go straight to apprenticeships and careers, others follow on to college. Whether they study their craft, engineering, drafting or business, the specialized experience gained in career tech gives them a unique perspective and experience as they continue their studies.

“It’s a sign that what we are doing is working,” he said.