New Orleans High School Students Build Homes to Learn Skills for Work and Life
unCommon Construction, a non-profit in NOLA, gives students valuable training in the building trades
Most teenagers spend their Saturdays sleeping in, going to the mall, or maybe doing their homework. But for these teens down in New Orleans, they roll up their sleeves and get to work building houses. Founded in 2015, unCommon Construction (uCC) is a non-profit that teaches high school students both construction and work skills. According to Aaron Frumin, the executive director of uCC, the students meet up for a few hours after school each week, and all day on Saturdays to work toward building skills, and a new home.
uCC apprentices learn leadership skills, work on a house project that the organization builds each semester, and/or take related restoration and building side jobs in the community. Students participating as interns are compensated with hourly wages, school credit via Louisiana’s Jump-Start policy, and potential scholarships once the house sells. But even more than all of that, the students value being part of a team.
“Everybody's got different personalities, and to see us come together, and nobody getting into it and argue… it’s a cool environment,” uCC intern Tahj Turner said in a promotional video for the non profit.
“I really learned to start communicating with other people. We learn from each other; taking time out to listen to each other to get things simply and easily done,” De’Shawn Burnett said.
Frumin, who is also the organization’s founder, is an established non-profit worker who started as a traditional classroom teacher. “Real quickly, I was frustrated with the walls and constraints of my classroom,” he said. “And I figured that if it was true for me, then it would be true for the students I attempt to teach.”
Frumin’s move to trade mentoring was based on his own experiences, which include working for a construction company in Reno, Nevada, and the New Orleans chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Through those jobs, he “fell in love with how rigorous and rewarding the jobsite can be."
Frumin said that it was difficult to get the organization started, due to the need for making sure the project is well funded and managed, but he thinks that the organization is off to a good start. From his 2018 cohort, all of the students graduated on time, and between 75-80% of them are seeking jobs or education related to construction. That's a big win for the industry.
Some people, like Ashley Aleman, the K-12 Industry Liason for Greater New Orleans Inc., are encouraged by this. “I think unCommon Construction is important for New Orleans because we really lack technical skills training for youth in our city,” she said. “So, unCommon Construction is making it more available to a more diverse array of students so that they can begin learning a trade.”
Frumin doesn’t think that uCC will try to expand in the same sense as a non-profit like Habitat for Humanity, but he thinks that the uCC will be a different position in the years to come.
“We have the potential to engage with a lot of different young people from different schools, and that has a ripple effect back at their schools and with their friends, and the ways that their positions as leaders in the community fall,” he said.