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Habitat High students build on their education
Students learn every aspect of building process
Habitat High students work Wednesday at the site of a future home on Lanier Springs Drive in Gainesville. The students, along with the supervision of an instructor and other skilled professionals, are building a ranch style house for a family in need. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

One Hall County high school doesn't have its own building. The school is open for three hours with a total enrollment of seven.

Its students work outside in steel-toed boots with levels and wheelbarrows instead of pens and pencils.
It might be a bit unorthodox, but this is the daily routine for kids at Habitat High.

Habitat High is a program that builds houses "soup to nuts" from the ground up alongside Habitat for Humanity, Superintendent Will Schofield said.

"As far as I know, this is the only one throughout the country. There's definitely no others in the state," instructor Rodney Presley said.

Habitat High is in its fifth year and working on its eighth house, a ranch style located on Lanier Springs Drive in Gainesville. It will be given to a single mother with two small children, Presley said.

"Other houses, sometimes we've had foundations poured and everything before we got out here and we'd start with the framing," Presley said. "This house and the last house we actually started from the ground up, literally. A dozer came in and cleared this out, but we formed the footing and we're going to lay the foundation."

Though most Habitat High students haven't had any construction experience prior to the program, they have a hand in every aspect of the building process.

Licensed contractors have to do the electrical and plumbing work, and much of the landscaping is done through community groups. The kids get to help pull wire, lay pipes and plant bushes.

"Last year we had 25 students in the class and this year we have seven," said Tyler Ward, 17, a senior at Chestatee High School.

"Last year I feel we did a bit quicker because there were more people. This year we're moving slower but at the same time we learn more, because we have more personal experience fixing our mistakes."

Other than concrete pushing the form boards on the foundation out too far, there haven't been any major challenges with the Lanier Springs house.

Chelsea Johnson, 17, said the biggest challenge for her was tackling the actual building process.

"It's all really interesting. There's different things that come every day," the Flowery Branch High School senior said.

All costs for the program are covered by Habitat for Humanity, save Presley's salary and some of the tools students use. Habitat comes up with the floor plans for each house. Usually the plans depend on the family size and the land layout. But if two houses have similar requirements, plans can be reused.

Not all Habitat High houses are straightforward.

"We had one off Browns Bridge Road that was kind of steep. Even the foundation walls were about 8 feet high," Presley said.

Students need several construction courses under their belts before they apply to be part of Habitat High. They do earn high school class credit for their work in the field.

"They go through an application process as far as résumés, teacher recommendations, just like a job," Presley said. "People from (Habitat for Humanity) have a committee that comes in and interviews the students, and from that interview process and their credentials we select the students."

Ward doesn't plan on going into construction — he wants to be a SWAT team sergeant. He's doing Habitat High as a family legacy, following his brother's footsteps.

"He did the third house. We went to the ground-breaking and key presentation, and I just figured I wanted to do it to have a little fun, learn a little more about construction and maybe in the future I can fix my house if it messes up," Ward said.

Johnson wants to be an equine, or horse, veterinarian.

Her interest comes from growing up with family in the business.

She also wants to prove to the boys that she can lay a foundation and roof tiles just as well as they can.

"I want to learn it for myself," Johnson said. "I understand everything that's going on. If a guy came up to me and started talking about it, I'd know exactly what they were talking about."

Joseph McClure, 18, a senior at West Hall High School, does plan on going into construction.

"I've been thinking about going to a tech school and taking on electrical or something. I'm not really sure what I want to do, but this is probably going to be my career pathway," he said.

McClure did Habitat High in 2010 alongside Ward. The most memorable part for him was giving the house to its designated family.

"When you get the house done and late in the year when we have the dedication and give it to the family, it just makes you feel like you accomplished something," he said.

Schofield attended the dedication for a house Habitat High built off of Mountain View Road. The single mother who got the house was there the week before, and her two children were arguing about which bedroom they got.

"I said, ‘Boys, isn't this cool? Someday, 20 years from now, you're going to drive by here with your children and say you helped build that house and gave it to a single mom who never had a house,'" Schofield said. "You talk about real learning? This is the power of career pathways."