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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Evergreen High School students break ground — literally — with heavy machinery

Local construction companies worked with the Skilled Trades Center to put students in the drivers seat of excavators, bulldozers

By , Columbian staff writer
7 Photos
Tapani&rsquo;s John Jordan, left, looks on as Evergreen High School junior Isaiah Florendo, 16, gives a mini-excavator a try on Thursday morning.
Tapani’s John Jordan, left, looks on as Evergreen High School junior Isaiah Florendo, 16, gives a mini-excavator a try on Thursday morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s 11 a.m. on a Thursday, and 17-year-old Thomas Cunningham is in the driver’s seat of an excavator.

Slowly, carefully, Cunningham toggled the joystick in his left hand to rotate the machine’s arm, known as a boom, to position it for his next dig. Just a junior in high school, the time spent behind the controls of such a large machine wasn’t something he’d ever done before.

Sure, he’s done a bit of work on his car and learned to build makeshift skate ramps, but this was different.

“I’ve always been interested in building, but I’ve never been able to use heavy machinery like this,” he said. “I’m pretty surprised to have this experience at school.”

Cunningham’s surprise is warranted. It’s uncommon to see a kid maneuvering an excavator outside his school. But on Thursday, he and dozens of other Evergreen High School students got a rare chance to take turns on the heavy machinery as part of the school’s first ever “Dig Day.”

Just outside the school’s new Skilled Trades Center, local construction companies had set up dirt piles and trial zones for kids to get hands-on experience of what real-world construction work is like.

The Skilled Trades Center, which opened this fall, is an expansion of the district’s Career and Technical Education program. Just a few months into the school year, teachers say the new center has allowed students to take the next level in their education about basic trades, from air conditioning repair to electrical work and more.

“This is a mind-blowing prospect,” said Chandler Eby, a construction teacher at Evergreen. “Imagine you get to come to high school and run a bulldozer. It’s fun, but it’s also a way for them to take a serious look at this as a career opportunity.”

Testing out the gear

After a brief orientation, Evergreen students were sent off to rotate among five outdoor stations and one indoor station. The work ranged from learning basic excavator controls to flattening spaces with a full-size bulldozer to maneuvering a scissor-lift inside.

Battle Ground-based Tapani Construction and C&E Rentals had volunteered machinery and staff to help walk students through the motions of learning each machine and how it might be used in the real world.

Dave Barela, the general superintendent at Tapani, said the event is just as good of an opportunity for his team as it is for the students.

Barela said Tapani has participated in career days with the district before, but this time, the company wanted to have a more active role.

“This just exposes them to what we do. We want to give them that spark,” Barela said.

That spark, Eby said is key. When he was a student himself, Eby said he felt there was a stigma around trades work, as counselors pushed kids to pursue a four-year education instead.

“I was a student at Cascadia Tech, I wanted to enter construction. When I proposed the idea to my counselor, she asked me why I wanted to ‘be a loser,’” Eby said, laughing. “But, you know, these pathways are available and valuable. What we’ve noticed is that people are saying no to this industry without knowing what they’re saying no to.”

New opportunities

While still early in the school year, Eby said he’s already seen five of his students receive apprenticeship offers on the spot after lessons with local trades workers.

Tobias Morfitt, a senior, is one of those students with an offer on the table.

Only about a month ago, he had a chance to work with Area Heating and Cooling at school, learning the basics about air conditioning repair. Within the first few minutes of the work, Morfitt said it came naturally to him.

“They told me I did the work really efficiently,” Morfitt said. “It’s incredible to hear that, to have that feeling.”

After a successful run on a drilling machine, Morfitt said his teachers were joking that maybe he’d have more offers coming soon.

Eby said he’s hoping Dig Day can become an annual event. The excitement from students, he said, transforms their perception of what trades careers can be.

“It’s all about making them realize these opportunities are real,” Eby said. “When they come here and do this, school becomes more valuable to them. It directly answers that big question: ‘How is this going to help me later in life?’”