City Academy builds up

City Academy kids remove some old window trim from a serious fixer-upper owned by Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services. The school’s Youth Build program, which has been going strong since 1993, got a bump up in funding via federal grants. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Chia Yang, the Youth Build crew leader, was once a City Academy student himself -- he went through the Youth Build program and became a licensed contractor before coming back to work for the school, teaching kids how to do contracting work. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Added grant means more ‘hands-on’ for alternative high school students

It was not your typical last day of school -- on a hot and sunny Friday, May 30, four teenage boys wore safety glasses, masks, and threw debris out a second story window into a dumpster.

The boys are City Academy students, and they were gutting a beat up old house for Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, as part of their school’s YouthBuild curriculum.

The program gives them experience building and repairing houses, and they get paid for their work, while learning about construction, lead remediation, carpentry, and other general contractor skills.

City Academy is a public school, founded in 1992 in cooperation with the City of St. Paul and is a registered non-profit. Classes are held in the city-owned Wilder Recreation Center in Payne-Phalen. It’s been sponsored since 2000 by St. Catherine University.

Though there’s no one defining characteristic of the kids that go to the school, many struggled at traditional public high schools, and transferred to City Academy. They all have this in common: “they all learn best with hands-on experience,” said Chia Yang, the main crew leader for the school’s YouthBuild program.

That YouthBuild program got a big funding boost this past year -- with the help of Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, the school secured $768,000 in federal funding to use over two years. It’s meant the school’s small program expanded from 30 up to 48 kids per year. Other funding comes from a state YouthBuild program as well as private grants.

As a result of the new grant funding, the charter school will be hiring on a second crew leader to accommodate the growing program. The first year with the extra funding meant the kids made it out to more jobsites and completed more projects on beat up East Side houses.

The home they were working on during the last day of school was an intensive whole-house rehab of a home at 676 Rivoli St., up on the bluff overlooking downtown near Interstate 35E.

Yang said the added funding came as good news, since there’s always a high demand for the program, and students end up on waiting lists to get in.

Milo Cutter, founder and principal of the school, said with the economy picking up, the timing is good to get more students involved with the program.

“This is a good time right now for young people to be looking at apprentice programs,” Cutter said, “because there are actually jobs in the trades.”

Cutter noted that though City Academy expanded YouthBuild, it’s not looking to increase the school’s overall capacity, which has stayed at roughly 180 students for years.

This small size is intentional, Cutter explained, and ensures the kids have one-on-one attention from teachers.

Truancy issues fade away

Jer Lor, 17, a junior at City Academy, said he’s glad he ended up at the school -- he was falling behind on credits at his former school, Como High School, but has manged to stay on top of things at City Academy. If you fall behind, “you get more help from the staff,” he said, “and you get caught up.”

He got in trouble at Como for skipping school, he said. But at City Academy, he’d rather be in class -- “working at the worksite is better than skipping school,” he said.

And that’s in no small part due to his instructor, Chia Yang, whom he described as “one of the greatest” teachers he’s had.

It also helps that he gets paid -- he said he’s saving up to buy a car.

Yang himself went to City Academy, first viewing his foray into construction as a way to earn some money while going to school.

But, he quickly began to realize “I’m learning new skills.”

Ahe Vang, 17, also a junior at City Academy, said he ended up there because he wasn’t doing well at his old school, Washington Technology Magnet School. He got expelled after skipping class.

With small class sizes and one-on-one relationships with teachers and even the principal, he said he’s able to connect, and feel like he’s learning new skills.

“At City Academy, a teacher is like your friend, although he forces you to do a lot of stuff,” he said, laughing.

At times, he said he has to explain away the stigma of going to a school where many of the kids dropped out or were expelled from a standard public school.

They ask him, “Isn’t it bad there?”

“I don’t look at it that way,” Vang said. For him, it’s a place to buckle down, at take school seriously.

While he likes construction and hopes to do the YouthBuild program during his senior year, he said his real goal is to go to college and major in medical science.

Jim Erchul, director of Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, said the organization has had a steady partnership with City Academy since 1993 and noted the school works with other neighborhood groups such as the East Side Neighborhood Development Company.

And while DBNHS does get some benefits from working with the school, mainly Erchul said they’re doing it “because we think it’s cool” - the organization’s members like seeing the kids learning trade skills.

Erchul said it reminds him of his own youth -- his great-uncles were high school shop teachers, and were always pulling Erchul and his brother into construction projects.

“It’s just fun seeing the youth in action,” he said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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