Reviving moribund shop class succeeds where academic program failed

Hands-on approach tames troubled students


Robert Kainz teaches hard kids.

How hard? In the beginning, some wouldn't even talk to Kainz, who is a shop teacher at Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit.

But if there's a way to the heart of tough Iqaluit teenage boys – and even the odd girl – it appears to be through metal grinders, acetylene welding torches and other gear in Kainz's shop.

He's patient. And patience, above all, is what he teaches. It leads to some incredible results.

Take Michael Naulaq, a cheerful 17-year-old who's brushing black paint over a wooden snowmobile trailer. He has perfect attendance for welding shop class.

What a change.

Barb Young, a student support teacher, remembers how Naulaq used to enter the school around 10:30 a.m. with a coffee in his hand, then spend most the day wandering the halls.

Teachers say he was a tight ball of anger. If he went to class, he'd often be kicked out for misbehaviour. Other times he'd take the initiative, loudly announcing he was "sending himself to the office."

Naulaq was on a path that three in four kids in Nunavut follow, to dropping out of school. But he didn't.

Now Naulaq likes working in shop so much, he encourages other kids to come. His mom also sees the difference: he's more eager to go to school, and so are his friends.

Young credits a different approach the school takes with kids who may be naturally gifted working with their hands, but have slipped far behind in subjects like reading and math.

"This has not felt like their building. This has felt like a building for other kids," Young says.

So, over the last few years, the school revived its flagging trades program. It hired Kainz and cleared 10 truckloads of garbage from the welding shop, which had fallen into disrepair over the years. And it hired a jewelry instructor, Mark Lasocki, who teaches across the hall from Kainz.

Since September, about 40 kids, who likely otherwise wouldn't be in school, have spent their whole school week attending shop classes. The program is called Pirurvik, or "a place to grow."

Classes are kept small, at a maximum of 10 kids, so that instructors can spend ample hands-on time with each student.

Besides the shop classes, the Pirurvik program is also supposed to help each student come up with a career goal to work in the trades, and a plan to reach that goal.

Young says the results speak for themselves. A few kids dropped out, but most students began to attend class dramatically more often. Behavior problems have also plummeted.

A few students even show interest in subjects they once loathed. Three boys in welding class have asked if they could re-take math.

Across the hall from the welding shop, Pudloo Arlooktoo, 16, sits bent over a small crescent of metal as he files off the sharp edges. He's making a pair of ulu-shaped earrings, from dix gold – brass with copper mixed into it.

The finished work is good enough to sell. Arlooktoo has made a few hundred dollars from some creations. One pair of his earrings, in the shape of gold leafs, dangle from Young's ears.

Lasocki, the jewelry teacher, hopes some of his students will one day enroll in Nunavut Arctic College's jewelry-making program. And, maybe, one day make a living by creating jewelry.

Lasocki scavenged the shop chairs from city hall and the legislature. He built the tables, and brought some of the equipment up on his own sealift shipment.

The room is unusually quiet – it's exam week. But the quietness is itself a remarkable change.

Most kids here have trouble sitting through other classes. Here, they're quiet. They're focused. And, like in the metal shop, they're learning about patience.

Slowly. One student, hastily cutting an elaborate metal crucifix, slips and cuts his finger with the saw blade. He heads to the office for a bandage.

"I'm always saying, slow down," Lasocki says with a sigh.

The idea of using trades to reach difficult students isn't new. Terry Young, Inuksuk High's principal, recalls how the school had well-staffed shops in the 1970s. Then schools faced cutbacks. Shop programs were among the first to be hurt.

Now Canada is facing a nation-wide shortage of skilled tradespeople. With most skilled blue-collar workers being sucked into oil-rich Alberta, there's growing demand in Nunavut for skilled labour. In Iqaluit, home repairmen and auto mechanics often have more work than they can handle.

Meanwhile, Nunavut wants to train hordes of miners and tradespeople to cash in on the territory's future mining boom. A territorial trade school is supposed to open in Rankin Inlet by 2009, which the government hopes will pump out about 75 tradespeople each year.

But few high schools in Nunavut offer much to students interested in trades. This hits home this day, Thursday, Jan. 25, as teachers from outside Iqaluit toured the facilities and looked on with envy.

Pirurvik largely isn't paid for by Nunavut, at least, not yet. Right now it's supported with federal crime-prevention money, and donations by Kakivak and the Legion. The school has enough money to offer it until January 2009.

"When funding runs out, we really hope it will become a core program for schools in Nunavut," Young says.

As for Kainz, the welding teacher, he has no doubts many of his students, if they persevere, could one day hold down solid jobs in a skilled trade.

"They're all really talented. You just need to find out how they fit in," he says. "Once they get started, they want to do everything. It's just getting them started."

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