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Contractors group builds its own high school to train students

The real estate market may have slowed a bit, but contractors still need skilled workers to build houses.
However, those workers are in short supply, says David Jones, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Contractors Association.
The shortage is expected to get worse, he adds.
“By the year 2014, we’ll be 40,000 skilled laborers short, according to the Arizona Department of Commerce,” Mr. Jones says.
High school curriculum has been geared toward prepping students to become doctors, lawyers and other white-collar professionals, says Brett Jones, Arizona Contractors Association lobbyist and safety director.
“Other priorities have risen to the top,” says Brett, David’s son.
John Caponetto agrees. He is past president of the Mohave County Contractors Association and a homebuilder himself.
Schools didn’t have funds
Contractors in Mohave County experienced the labor shortage first-hand. They approached area high schools and asked them to expand offerings in voc-ed, particularly building trades. Administrators told them the money wasn’t there, Mr. Caponetto says.
“We weren’t getting anywhere with that,” he adds.
An arrangement with the community college didn’t pan out either.
Then at an association meeting in 2000, he said, one of the members asked to speak.
As Mr. Caponetto recalls: “He got up and said, ‘I make a motion that we start a charter high school.’”
As the contractors envisioned it, they’d create a charter school in Fort Mohave specializing in the building trades, one that couldn’t be shoehorned into a strip mall. It would need room for hands-on instruction. Estimated cost for the land and construction came to more than $1 million. Construction financing was arranged through a $750,000 loan from a savings and loan company and a $300,000 loan from area 12 contractors, who contributed up $25,000 each.
A charitable foundation arranged for $175,000 to purchase the land.
The group then had to get the charter from the state to operate the school and receive funding. That meant creating a school board and — as Mr. Caponetto puts it — “jumping through all kinds of hoops.”
They had to show how they’d handle financing as well as how they’d go about attracting qualified teachers and administrators. It wasn’t easy, Mr. Caponetto says.
“We’re talking about a bunch of contractors,” he says.
Their toughest moment came three years ago, when they appeared before the state Charter School Board. The board members had some tough questions, touching on failures of charter schools past.
“We stumbled around a bit,” Mr. Caponetto says.
Doors opened in 2004
But they got the charter. The Academy of Building Industries opened its doors in 2004, with 11,000 square feet of shop space, classrooms and offices. Attendance last school year was about 100.
“We’re shooting for 108 this semester,” Mr. Caponetto says.
Students are white, Native American and Hispanic. Girls make up less than 10 percent of the student body.
Whatever the gender or ethnic background, for many, the academy has been a lifeline, Mr. Caponetto says.
“A lot of these kids, they weren’t making it in the regular high school. They just didn’t see any relevance between the curriculum and what they were doing,” he says.
The voc-ed classes tie in nicely with state academic standards, he adds. Students need all three AIMS skills — reading, writing and math — for the construction industry.
Alongside required academic courses, the academy offers classes in welding, framing, concrete work and other skills.
“We’re not turning out certified craftsmen,” Mr. Caponetto says. “We’re getting the students exposed to all the trades.”
Instruction takes students beyond the classroom as well. If their grades are good, they can report to a contractor as part of a Friday work program. And there are athletics, too. The academy has a football team and a new basketball court was recently completed.
While the school is operating in the black, it still has to pay off the construction debt.
“We do a lot of fundraising,” Mr. Caponetto says.

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