'I have faith in these kids': How a new MPS teacher is remaking shop class

NOW: ’I have faith in these kids’: How a new MPS teacher is remaking shop class

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- It's not uncommon for a new teacher to make tweaks to their class's curriculum. But at North Division High School, students in shop class have taken on an entirely different objective, and the new emphasis in on building real world skills.

From terminology to tools, it's easy for Gene Llanas to rattle off construction instructions for his class of about a dozen students. Llanas grew up helping his family flip houses around Kenosha and Waukegan.

"The first driveway I broke up, I was like 12 years old, $2.50 an hour, and I didn't always get paid," Llanas said. "My dad wouldn't pay me unless I did a good job."

Llanas then worked in real estate until last year. He said he read an article about how Milwaukee Public Schools was dealing with a shortage of shop teachers.

So, he called the district.

"I just told him my situation; that I know construction, I know concrete and I've got a bachelor's degree," Llanas said. "Next thing I know, I'm teaching at North Division."

At the start of this school year, the curriculum called for projects like building birdhouses and toolboxes. Llanas decided to skip ahead.

"I didn't see the long-term benefit of students learning how to build a toolbox," he said.

While most of the students here have no background in construction, he's dedicated the entire year to building out a model floor plan. That includes the framing, electrical and drywall.

"I have faith in these kids," Llanas said. "The kids that I met, they're smart, they're great kids. I knew that if I challenged them to do this, they were gonna rise to the challenge."

It helps to have someone like Nyasia Johnson in the class. Johnson, a senior, said she was familiar with this work because she's her stepdad is a contractor, and she's helped him out at job sites.

"I was working with him because he wanted to, like, put me on punishment but actually benefit from it," she said. "Putting up the drywall and mudding it because you get messy, so that's part of hard work -- getting messy."

Most of the other students, however, have had to learn the basics. After more than five months of building, everyone is in awe when they step back.

"At first, it was nothing there. It was like a big ole space," Davion Newson, a junior, said. "Next thing you know; we got this big ole house we about to do."

"It's nice but it's scary, too," senior Antoine Harris said. "Because I don't get how we really built all this. At all."

Llanas now hopes to change his students' perspective on life after high school. He wants them to consider going into the trades.

"I think MPS students can, I think they should fill some of those jobs," he said.

The Metropolitan Builders Association advocates for homebuilding in the metro Milwaukee region. Toby Van Sistine, the group's director of government affairs, said most of the businesses he frequently hears from could use an extra hand or two amid an overall labor shortage.

"There are openings in every facet, from the manufacturing side of things up to the day-to-day construction process, so we need laborers everywhere," Van Sistine said.

Van Sistine added demand for labor has actually slowed in recent months. Builders have reported having fewer projects, which Van Sistine attributed to higher interest rates.

Eventually, he expects those rates to decline. Regardless, the trades are a field where there's always help wanted.

"We have to take care of our homes; that is never gonna change," Van Sistine said. "So, there will always be a need to have people that know how to use tools, know the basics and can come and help."

At North Division, there's now a group of students preparing to address that need. Johnson said she wanted to move to Colorado and start her own contracting business.

"At first, I wanted to be a hair stylist or a nail tech. I never thought I would be a woodworking woman," she said with a laugh.

After getting to know his students, Llanas said he's most proud of a connection that has nothing to do with the floor plan they're building.

"You know, there's kids that come from difficult situations, a decent amount, but in their heart, inside them is-," Llanas said before pausing to recompose himself.

"I know that there's kids that want to do better. There are kids that are aware of their situations, and they just need a little window. They just need a window."

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