The numbers don't lie when it comes to construction jobs held by minorities in the Washington area. Blacks sit at the bottom of the totem pole, but it's not due to a lack of jobs. Some of the issues that preclude entry include lack of qualifications, lack of access and discrimination.
To that end, one of the District's best-kept secrets is housed on the campus of Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest, where students in grades 10 through 12 learn the ins and outs of the trades that can set them on a secure career path.
"The Academy of Construction & Design is a joint venture between the District of Columbia Public School system and the D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation and it's been very successful," said Director Shelly Karriem. She added that many of the students who have completed curriculums that focus on trades like carpentry, electrical, heating and air conditioning, go on to college.
"It was an unexpected outcome, but also a welcome outcome," Karriem said. "The students are supposed to spend two years in the program, receive a certificate that would prepare them to go into the workforce to begin their careers." But as it's turned out, "two-thirds go to college and one-third [enter] the industry."
Karriem also hailed the Academy of Construction & Design as a blessing for students, many of whom lack parental guidance.
"This program has proven to be a lifeline for them. We set the bar high when they're here, but we don't let the bar go once they've taken hold of it and graduated," Karriem said. "We help them navigate through the education and career processes and assist them with scholarships during their second, third and fourth years of college."
During the day, 225 students attend the program. But in the evening, as the D.C. Apprenticeship Academy, 103 students show up to work toward their certifications.
Cheryl Rodgers, director of the D.C. Apprenticeship Academy said that after students graduate, they can work for one of the D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation's member companies like Miller & Long, M.C. Dean and D.C. Sigal.
"Once they become employed, they can go to the [D.C.] Apprenticeship Academy and take classes to get certification in the different construction trades, which include electrical, carpentry and plumbing," said Rodgers. Echoing Karriem's sentiments, she said the manner in which both academies intertwine makes them unique – particularly for the holistic approach taken to attract students.
Karriem, who previously worked with Associated Builders and Contractors of Metro Washington, explained that the Academy of Construction & Design evolved from a need among construction employers who were having problems hiring qualified workers.
"So we came up with the idea that we needed to start teaching trades at the high school level," Karriem said. "We pitched this idea to a couple of the high schools and got shot down. Then we went to the principal of Cardozo at the time – and he said, 'Absolutely, bring it to Cardozo.'"
Over the course of its seven-year existence, the Academy of Construction & Design has had its share of challenges. But the facility has still managed to be a positive force among the District's vocational offerings.
Karriem boasted about having 12 students who are graduating from the Academy of Construction & Design this year, but she was equally elated over the program's efforts to build a house as part of a classroom project. "Last year we started our first student-built house in the District which is just about complete, except for installation of cabinets and appliances," Karriem said. "We're hoping that will be done by the end of June."
The three-bedroom, 1,900-square-foot house is located at 5743 13th Street in Northwest. "This has never happened in the history of the District of Columbia," she said. Upon completion, Karriem said the house will go on the market, with proceeds going to the D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation, so that the Academy of Construction & Design and its next project can continue.
Anndrell McDonald, 17, who studied carpentry, will graduate next month. She said that in addition to wanting to own a construction company, she aspires to be president of the Women's National
"I can help build the program as far as constructing a stadium for a basketball team or for different organizations," said Anndrell, who heads off to Garrett College in western Maryland in the fall.
Anndrell said the [program] she attends has helped her to become more focused and disciplined.
"After my father died I was out of control and had given up on school," Anndrell said. "I didn't care
But she said that after talking one day with [Ms. Karriem] she had a change of heart. "After that, I started focusing more, and here I am about to go to college. [Ms. Karriem] really keeps her foot down."