ROCK FALLS – Outside, a handful of students stood on the roof as they scraped the crumbling shingles off a dilapidated, one-car garage at the end of a cracked, concrete driveway.
Inside, a few students sanded and smoothed the walls of a closet, while others worked on other small projects.
The students in the building trades program through the Whiteside Area Career Center are renovating – top to bottom – a foreclosed home on East Eighth Street, adjacent to Wallingford Park and the Rock Falls Little League baseball field.
The two-story, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house was in poor condition when the students started working on it last spring, instructor John Gehrke said.
The students so far have replaced the roof, siding and front and back porches. They also have redone the electrical wiring and plumbing, put up new drywall and installed new windows and doors, he said.
The students still have to lay down hardwood, tile and carpet flooring and install cabinets and other fixtures, as well as paint walls. They also will fix up the detached garage and do some landscaping, he said.
The house should be ready to return to the bank for sale by the end of the school year, Gehrke said.
Building trades, in existence since the career center opened in the late 1960s, is a 1- or 2-year program for juniors and seniors, in which students build or renovate houses in Sterling and Rock Falls.
Students of varying experience levels learn about framing, plumbing, electrical wiring, roofing and installing doors, windows and cabinets. They also learn to estimate materials, read blueprints, and work safety at a construction site.
Many students in the program have a strong interest in the building trades, Gehrke said. Some plan to go into the trades and even own their own businesses or join family businesses, he said.
Other students have only a mild interest in the trades, and they gain the knowledge and skills useful for home ownership, Gehrke said.
Students also learn soft skills, such as teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Brandon Knott, a senior at Fulton High School, and Logan Bookman, a senior at Eastland High School, have learned not to give up when the going gets tough.
The pair have worked side by side through much of their 2 years in the program. They often have had to do jobs two, three, even four times and find creative solutions to problems.
"You develop a good work ethic," Knott said. "You can't give up on anything."
"You can't slack off here," Bookman added.
Nolan Dykema, a senior at Morrison High School, who plans to join his family farming operation, enjoys the variety of jobs at the work site.
He has been able to work on all aspects of the remodeling project, from tear-down to build-up.
"I kind of came into [the program] knowing a lot, but I've definitely furthered my knowledge," Dykema said.
The students also have done a few community-service-type projects, including hanging mirrors and installing shelving at a nursing home and tearing out carpeting at a church. They even routinely shovel snow for folks along the route to and from their work site.
The career center suspended the program a year ago because of low enrollment, but it brought back the program this year because enrollment surged from an anticipated 30 students to 50.
The career center needs at least 45 students across its three blocks of building trades classes to financially justify the program, Director Kim Purvis said. It caps enrollment at about 60 students, she added.
Students have until May 1 to register for classes, but the 17 schools that use the career center must provide preliminary enrollment numbers by March 1, Purvis said. Enrollment, if it changes from the estimates, typically drops, she said.
Officials previously blamed the poor economy and housing market for the lackluster interest in building trades. In fact, that reason caused the program to switch from building new homes to renovating existing houses 3 years ago.
But Purvis says decreased school funding cuts could spell the demise of the building trades program.
"It won't be the job market; it will be the funding to schools," she said. "Our schools financially just might not be able to send their students to [the career center]."
Bookman believes the program has made him and his fellow students well rounded.
"These aren't just job skills; these are life skills," he said. "We can always come back to this. This can only help us.”