Students at Emsworth school build their own desks

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If carpentry was a good enough profession for “our patron St. Joseph,” Sister Linda Yankoski said it’s good enough for her students at the soon-to-open Holy Family Academy in Emsworth.

As part of a three-week summer orientation camp, incoming freshmen students spent a day at the Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters Training Center in Collier building the desks they will use for the next four years.

Sister Linda, CEO of Holy Family Institute in Emsworth, said the project ties into the independent private Catholic high school’s philosophy of teaching the “dignity and value of work.”

“Everyone has something to do after high school, but it’s not always college,” Sister Linda said. “The kids might not ever think about carpentry as a career, but we’re exposing them to it. Our students shouldn’t feel like second-class citizens if they choose not to go to college.”

The academy, which opens in August, has established a work-study program to help students gain relevant work experience before graduation while contributing toward their school tuition.

Annual tuition for the academy is $15,000, with $8,500 of it paid through work-study. Students are given their work-study assignments during the first week of school.

Desk parts were pre-cut for students, but students smoothed and buffed the edges and cut notches in the wood to attach the parts. The uniform desks also were engraved with crosses on the desktop and base, with side panels carved to resemble a cathedral tower. Students will disassemble and stain the desks before the start of school year and decorate their own nameplates.

The assignment not only teaches the students a new skill, Sister Linda said, but also holds them responsible for their property while giving them a sense of pride in building something they’ll use every day.

“One of our goals as a school is to provide our students with work-ready skills while they are still in high school,” principal Ron Zangaro said. “By building their own desks, students will learn about accountability and responsibility along with the pride that comes from accomplishing a task.”

Marques Duncan, 13, said before the day’s assignment he was considering joining the military after graduation. He was the first in his class to finish assembling his desk, and said he thinks he might pursue a carpentry apprenticeship instead. “I’m so glad I did it,” he said. “I’m really proud of myself. Every time I see it, I can think of what I learned here and keep using it.”

The project was funded in part by the Hive Fund for Connected Learning at the Sprout Fund with additional expenses covered by private donors. Volunteers from the United Way of Allegheny County helped the students piece the desks together.

“They’re already recognizing if you build something from scratch, you need to be responsible, think about what you’re doing and be able to work together,” Sister Linda said. “Work ethic and character-building is our most important goal.”

The desk-building assignment wasn’t the first construction project for Delajah Dennis, 14. She has worked on several projects, including a birdhouse, with her father. Creating something on her own, she said, was a fun and new experience for her.

“You don’t really get an opportunity to do that a lot,” she said. “I have this. I can say that I proudly built this desk on my own. I learned I can do a lot of things I didn’t know I could do.”

Students have the option of donating the desks to the academy or keeping them as memorabilia after graduation. Ryan Mastele, 14, thinks he’ll keep his desk long after graduation and into adulthood. The project was his first time building something “other than Legos,” he said.

“I’d definitely like to keep it with me,” Ryan said. “High school is an important part of your life, and this is something I never want to forget.”

Clarece Polke: or 412-263-1889 or on Twitter @clarepolke.

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