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Masonry students learning skills for success

4/4/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Maria Lindsay

The ninth annual Ohio High School Masonry Competition was held March 28 at Buchtel Community Learning Center with eight area high schools participating. A group of students in the competition is pictured above.
Norton High School masonry program senior Mike Witzberger is shown completing his project for the competition.
Buchtel Community Learning Center masonry program senior Lenier Hawthorne is shown above working on his brick-laying skills.
Photos: Maria Lindsay
WEST AKRON — Akron Public Schools (APS) students in the masonry program at Buchtel Community Learning Center (CLC) are building their futures one brick at a time.

According to APS officials, the masonry program, started in 1999 by teacher John Vance, has been struggling to survive in recent years due to low enrollment, but APS officials are hoping to generate interest and grow the program. It recently got a boost when Matt Simpson, a 2001 graduate of the program that was once offered at Central-Hower High School, was hired to teach it at Buchtel CLC this year, according to APS officials.

Simpson, who just received the Ohio Teacher of the Year in Career Education award, said he applied for the job when he heard the masonry program was going to be canceled because district officials could not find someone to replace Vance, who was retiring.

“I decided to apply for the job because I wanted to give back to the program that gave me a career,” he said. “This program is for those not interested in going to college, at least immediately, but wanting something that will support a family.”

Simpson said he went straight from the program to work for Medina Glass Block for 12 years and has traveled all over the United States. He also said he wanted to help other students who are not interested in college find the kind of success he did.

“I enjoyed working with my hands, and I fell in love with the program from day one,” he said. “I understood that this was my opportunity to be able to provide for myself in the real world.”

He is now taking college classes to earn a Career and Technical Education endorsement while teaching the two-year APS masonry program. Currently, it has seven juniors and five seniors, and Simpson is hoping to grow it through exposure. The program offers a half-day of academics and a half-day of learning skills such as how to lay brick, block, stone and glass block using concrete, and how to read blueprints and use tools.

One way Simpson is exposing the program to other students and parents is to showcase students’ skills through the ninth annual Ohio High School Masonry Competition, which took place March 28 at Buchtel.

“The competition is an incentive for the students and offers relevance for the work they are doing in class,” said Simpson.

The competition drew 26 masonry students from eight area schools, including Buchtel and Norton High School from the West Side Leader coverage area. High school juniors in the program were required to build a composite wall of brick and cinderblock, and seniors had to build a corner rack-back lead in about three hours.

A panel of about 20 industry professionals judged the finished projects, while students in the competition enjoyed lunch created by Buchtel’s restaurant and heard speakers from the industry talk about jobs.

Buchtel’s Darnell Hubbard, who won first place in the junior masonry competition, was the only local winner in the masonry competition, according to Simpson.

Norton High School masonry teacher Don Begert said the masonry program is needed, and there are 25 juniors and seniors enrolled at Norton High School.

“The average age in the industry is 55,” he said. “We are going to need workers to replace them when they retire.”

Simpson added the average mason earned almost $47,000 in 2010, compared to $38,000 for construction workers. He said employment for masons is projected to grow 40 percent through 2020.

Lenier Hawthorne Sr., father of Lenier Hawthorne, a senior in the Buchtel program, said his son enjoys the program and “talks about the class and the teacher all the time.”

Cheryle and Scott Witzberger, parents of Mike Witzberger, a senior in the Norton program, said both their sons participated in the program. Scott Witzberger added his older son, Jeff, works in the field part-time while he studies civil engineering at The University of Akron. 

“I think this program is great,” said Scott Witzberger. “They should have more of these kinds of programs. The advantage is that it offers a backup for a job if college does not work out or until they know what they want to do.”

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