Philly needs more trades workers. So one teacher is giving students vocational skills in elementary school. [Philly Inquirer]

(Originally posted by the Philly Inquirer March 25, 2024)

Inside Room 113, power tools whined and sawdust flew. Students were bent over pieces of plywood as teacher Evin Jarrett called out directions.

Not a single student looked at a phone or engaged in conversation unrelated to the work at hand.

“You can’t sit in Mr. Jarrett’s class,” eighth grader Xiao Yi Guan said, her hands on a saw. “You always have to be doing something.”

Welcome to Mayfair Elementary and a one-of-a-kind classroom, where 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds learn elements of plumbing, carpentry, electrical work, and masonry every day — the foundational elements of career and technical education.

Mayfair Elementary teacher Evin Jarrett works with seventh grader Alicia Xavier, setting up a router for carving letters into a piece of wood.
Mayfair Elementary teacher Evin Jarrett works with seventh grader Alicia Xavier, setting up a router for carving letters into a piece of wood.Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

“I want the conversation started about middle school CTE,” said Jarrett. “The earlier we engage them, the better it is.”

Learning adult skills in middle school

After graduating from Roxborough High, Jarrett wanted to become a police officer, but his parents dreamed of college for their son, so he enrolled as an early childhood education major at Cheyney University. On school breaks, he worked for a contractor in Chestnut Hill and loved the job — the raises he got, the truck and apartment he was able to afford, the projects he was able to tackle and build with his hands.

Jarrett’s parents thought he returned to school when a new semester began, but he didn’t go back to class. That turned into 20 years spent working as a contractor, years he wouldn’t exchange for anything.

“All those experiences made me into what I am today,” said Jarrett.

After being injured on the job, Jarrett decided to turn to education. He spent three years teaching high school building trades classes at Pottstown High, then met Guy Lowery, Mayfair’s principal at the time, who had an idea to bring CTE classes to elementary school.

“It was like he was Phil Jackson and I was Michael Jordan,” said Jarrett. He got hired at Mayfair for the 2020-21 school year and started his program from scratch, taking an empty former kindergarten classroom and building it up once students were back to in-person learning. Now, the room is a marvel, crammed with tools (many are Jarrett’s own), donated equipment, and structures the students built themselves.

A seventh grader in Evin Jarrett's middle school CTE class traces out shapes on a sheet of board that she will cut out with a jigsaw at Mayfair Elementary School.
A seventh grader in Evin Jarrett’s middle school CTE class traces out shapes on a sheet of board that she will cut out with a jigsaw at Mayfair Elementary School.Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

His classroom is like no one else’s: Jarrett writes hall passes on pieces of PVC pipe and proudly points to the toilet perched on a high platform in the front of the room: It empties into a trashcan and fully flushes, not for waste but for students to practice plumbing. His students made it work themselves.

Technically, Jarrett’s is a “career exploration” program — formal CTE programs in Pennsylvania require 1,040 hours of instructional time and state approval. But Jarrett’s students can earn some of the same certifications high school students do. He often brings in speakers from various trades and backgrounds to talk to students about their career paths.

Nicoly Alves first walked into Jarrett’s classroom as a sixth grader, and was immediately hooked, spending every moment she could with a tool in her hand. Now, she’s 14, an eighth grader with a Home Builders Institute certification and an “if you give me anything, I can figure it out” attitude.

“I’m learning things that people would normally learn as adults,” said Alves. “I learned how to put down tile, build a shed, we did roofing. This summer, we’re going to do solar. Every time I get to use something new, I feel more proud of myself.”

Construction is Alves’ favorite trade; she wants to own an all-women company someday. It’s a sea change from her pre-Jarrett career goal, when she thought she wanted to become a plastic surgeon.

“This is the age when you really think about what you’re going to be,” said Alves. “Kids say, ‘I want to be a YouTuber, I want to do TikTok,’ but really, what is that path? A program like this should be added into every middle school to help kids decide what they want to become.”

‘They want to work’

Walking into Jarrett’s classroom on a recent Thursday, 20 seventh graders wasted no time getting to work, grabbing goggles, moving to their stations.

“Tie up that hair! Ear pods out of your ears,” said Jarrett, who can be firm, but prides himself on building strong relationships with students.

His is a “flipped” classroom: Jarrett assigns homework every Thursday, teaching a new skill by video, and if students complete their assignments by Monday morning, they get to tackle projects all week.

“Everybody gets my homework done because they want to be hands-on, they want to work,” said Jarrett.

Philadelphia School District teacher Evin Jarrett works with eighth grader Adriana Ramirez, 14, on using a compression tool for pressing together fittings and copper pipe.
Philadelphia School District teacher Evin Jarrett works with eighth grader Adriana Ramirez, 14, on using a compression tool for pressing together fittings and copper pipe.Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

That week’s lesson was mastering the jigsaw. Students, working in small groups, traced shapes in pieces of plywood, then carefully cut them out. Kids had to show Jarrett that their cut-out shapes fit perfectly back into the plywood, with no imperfections, to move on.

Mayfair is an enormous elementary school, with 1,700 kindergarten through eighth graders. More than half of its students, over 1,000, are English language learners.

That means “when I tell them to be quiet,” Jarrett has to say it in multiple languages: English, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, French, Portuguese and Spanish. And as is the case in most Philadelphia School District schools, kids come to class with varying levels of academic proficiency.

‘The great equalizer’

Jarrett sees his classroom as “the great equalizer,” a place where some students who don’t shine in other settings can find their place. Take one student, a middle schooler who barely reads.

“She comes in here and she feels confident, and she’s getting all these skills,” said Jarrett. “For some kids, if they didn’t have this, they wouldn’t want to come to school.”

Jarrett is gregarious, a networker, eager to spread the gospel of middle school CTE. He brands himself as the “Dope Teacher,” and under his tutelage, his pupils produce the Dope Student Podcast, chatting up guests about their careers.

But Jarrett sometimes encounters roadblocks, he said, from parents who think their children can do better than the trades. And he’s frustrated that his students don’t have a guaranteed pathway into the district’s CTE schools — Alves, for instance, has been waitlisted at Swenson Arts and Technology High School, her first choice, and may not get to pursue the trades in high school.

Still, Jarrett is pushing for his program, and its expansion. Some Saturdays, he takes a few of his students and his tools on the road, exposing other middle schoolers to the trades. (Alves is one of his student instructors.)

The work feels urgent, said Jarrett, who believes introducing career opportunities earlier could help stem the city’s gun violence problem.

Seventh grader Alice Xavier working with a route carving out letters on a board. Philadelphia School District teacher Evin Jarrett (not shown) turns kids on to vocational education.
Seventh grader Alice Xavier working with a route carving out letters on a board. Philadelphia School District teacher Evin Jarrett (not shown) turns kids on to vocational education.Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Students typically enter their formal CTE programs in 10th grade, which Jarrett thinks is “too late. You’ve got 14-year-olds robbing banks now, shooting each other. We need to get them exposed to the trades a lot earlier, so they can make good decisions.”

Michelle Armstrong, the district’s executive director of career and technical education, calls Jarrett and Mayfair’s program “a unicorn, an example of what we want all our programs to be,” but sees the model as highly promising. Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. has identified optimal middle school design, programming and facilities as one of the key priorities for his administration; Armstrong said middle-grades CTE should fit into that, possibly with schools around the city identified as hubs for the trades.

“Studies have shown that to really have that discussion about career readiness, postsecondary success, it needs to start earlier,” said Armstrong. “How do we support having those conversations earlier? We want young people to make more informed choices.”

For years, career and technical education was emphasized only for those for whom college was out of reach, but attitudes have shifted as college costs and student debt soar and industries lament a dearth of qualified tradespeople.

Armstrong sees what Jarrett does as preparing students “to make an informed decision,” she said. “We make sure they have the skills and the opportunity so when they graduate, they have agency over their life. They have choices.”

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