WILDWOOD - About three years ago, Michael Crane discovered a dilapidated camper in Galloway that had been abandoned by its owners.
Crane, the construction trades instructor at Wildwood High School, saw the trailer as an opportunity to teach his students home improvement skills they could not learn from models and textbooks.
“When I started working here, it was a woodshop. An outdated, 1970s woodshop,” Crane said. “It was good, but we still needed to do something to make more students career-ready.”
Inspired by the tiny house movement - a lifestyle trend that encourages homeowners to downsize and build mobile dwellings - Crane and his students constructed a 310-square-foot house on the camper chassis (the base frame of a motor vehicle or other wheeled conveyance). In the process, seniors, juniors and some sophomores learned skills like carpentry, electrical and plumbing.
“I strive to run my classes to look and feel like a real-life job site,” Crane said.
Crane bought the camper and trucked it to his workshop. After agreeing on blueprints, the class’ first task was stripping the trailer down to the frame. Then they stabilized the foundation and began framing the new house.
“We recycled everything we could out of the actual old existing structure” including much of the wiring and plumbing, Crane said. “Then we built it from the ground up like a regular house.”
Students sided and roofed, insulated walls, installed doors and windows, laid down flooring, painted, and built a kitchen and bathroom.
“I really liked learning the electrical and plumbing part of what Mr. Crane has taught me,” said student Donny Rexhepi, who plans to start his own contracting business.
All of the original students who began the tiny house project have since graduated. The project was so large that, at an hour a day every day of the school year, it took more than 60 students over three years to finish the house.
On June 12, the students gave teachers, administrators and middle-schoolers a tour of the finished product in the school’s courtyard.
“It has a loft, full kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom,” Crane said. “Essentially everything that is in a full-size home, only in a smaller package.”
In addition to teaching students how to build a house, Crane also showed them how to save money by salvaging and refurbishing materials. The shower stall and kitchen cabinets were salvaged from houses whose homeowners had replaced them.
“They’re learning how to refinish and refurbish, rather than just throw away and get new,” Crane said.
The house cost $30,000 to build. Local businesses including Peter Lumber, Thomas Roofing, and AICS Insulation donated materials.
Crane wants students to realize they can have successful careers in the trades, where he says demand is growing and pay is often better than it is for college graduates.
“The reality is that there is a large gap left for students that will not follow this path” of going to college, Crane said. “They graduate high school and are lost, not knowing where or how to succeed, so they take on a minimum wage job that takes no training and become stuck in a limited advancement opportunity job.”
Some students took the class so they wouldn't have to pay professionals to do repairs in their houses, Crane said. Already, students have told him of fixing light switches and drywall in their homes.
The construction trades class is an elective that students can choose to take. Crane estimates a third of the senior class’ population has gone through the program.
Other county high schools have visited Wildwood’s construction trade class with hopes of implementing their own programs, according to Special Education Aide Michael Popovick.
Future plans for the tiny house include the installation of solar panels and, soon, allowing students to stay in the completed house. Crane hopes his future students will be able to do major building projects, too.
“No other high schools that I know of give you the level of career preparation that I am receiving here,” said student J.D. Cammarano. “The skills you learn can be used in everyday life when I own my own home and also can prepare me for a number of careers."
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