The Mountain Park Elementary School construction class buzzed with the sounds of nearly 30 children sanding, drilling and hammering.

Small hands deftly filed rough edges, clamped wood pieces in place and nailed together napkin holders that their teacher hopes will be the pride of many Thanksgiving feasts to come.

Kennedy Martin, 9, concentrated on a crooked nail. She straightened it and started to pound again. This class is one of her favorites at the Roswell school.

“I have a grandpa that retired a few years ago, but he taught me stuff and I still have managed to learn more,” said the fourth grader.

About 600 students in second through fifth grades are learning the basics of carpentry and construction in a class that officials hope will soon be offered in elementary schools across the state.

Mountain Park’s program is unique in Georgia. Though there are after-school clubs for youngsters, industry experts and some educators want to make construction part of the middle and elementary school day instead of waiting for a teen to wander into a high school shop class.

”We have to do a better job of reaching kids earlier, flat out. High school just ends up being a little too late for a lot of kids,” said Zach Fields of the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia. “Oftentimes we sell students short on what they can actually do.”

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CEFGA, a nonprofit that promotes training for skilled trade jobs, serves students in more than 170 school programs. All but a handful are in high schools. Now there’s about 20 middle and elementary schools interested in offering construction, including Hollis Innovation Academy in Atlanta.

The construction organization teamed up with Mountain Park to launch the elementary class for fifth graders last year. This year, it expanded to include even younger grades, and Fulton County Schools provided financial support as part of the district’s investment in career, technology and agricultural education.

Construction is now on the schedule alongside art, music and physical education.

“People were like: ‘You’re going to have second graders using hammers?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, we are. We are going to teach them how to use hammers,’” said Principal Stacy Perlman.

The class gives students who may not excel in other subjects, such as reading and math, a chance to shine, she said. They’re also learning how to apply the knowledge they learn in other subjects.

caption arrowCaption
Fourth grade students Luke Wilson, 10 (left), and Madison Watford, 9, look on as instructor Scott Selvig (center) demonstrates how to clamp boards at Mountain Park Elementary School on Nov. 10, 2021. (Daniel Varnado/ For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Fourth grade students Luke Wilson, 10 (left), and Madison Watford, 9, look on as instructor Scott Selvig (center) demonstrates how to clamp boards at Mountain Park Elementary School on Nov. 10, 2021. (Daniel Varnado/ For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
caption arrowCaption
Fourth grade students Luke Wilson, 10 (left), and Madison Watford, 9, look on as instructor Scott Selvig (center) demonstrates how to clamp boards at Mountain Park Elementary School on Nov. 10, 2021. (Daniel Varnado/ For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

In construction teacher Scott Selvig’s classroom, the bulletin boards are covered with numbers: Two-by-four lumber and 80-grit sandpaper.

He started the year by showing students how to safely use the equipment stored neatly in drawers and cabinets. One of their first projects — an oversized wooden domino — required 13 different tools.

When the fifth graders made tool boxes, they also wrote and illustrated instruction manuals. (“I drilled a hole for a handle,” read one page. “I cut a angle at 45 degrees.”)

Selvig modified some tasks. When it’s time to drill a hole, students use a nail instead of a drill bit because it’s cheaper to replace a broken nail.

And he’s a stickler for a job well done, which likely means more sanding.

“When are we ready?” he asked students during a recent class. “When everything is…?”

“Smooth!” the children responded in unison.

Arlo Irving, 9, said his favorite thing about the class is that he gets to build his “own things and bring it home” instead of buying it online.

“It’s more fun than just waiting for it to come in like five days,” he said.

His fourth grade classmate Cannon Oaks, 9, said he has many of the same tools at home and thinks he may try making projects on his own.

“I think I’ll be able to do this sometime when I have a little more experience,” he said.

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One challenge to expanding the construction programs into elementary schools is paying for it. A federal funding source for career and technical education can only be used for fifth through 12th grades. That means state funding would be required for younger classes, said Meghan Frick, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education.

By the time some students reach high school, they’re disconnected from learning or have already decided what they are interested in, said Fields. CEFGA is betting that if younger children get a chance to create, they’ll be more likely to consider a career in construction.

“They’re using power tools for the very first time. They’re driving their very first nail, and it’s super special,” Fields said.