Building a successful woodworking education program requires passionate teachers, backing from the school administration, and support from industry.

But first, says Dean Mattson, you have to think of the students and make sure their needs are being met.

“In my experience over the past four years teaching, I have learned that it is paramount to always place the students’ needs and interests first,” he says. “Our program looks at students as the customers. We serve them. We establish a relationship, convince them that we are credible, and have the wisdom and skill sets to impart this wisdom to them. The customer then hopefully asks how they can get this wisdom.

“We use this technique to educate our students. We quickly try to establish a relationship of mutual respect, express our high level expectations of them and then how they can achieve meeting these goals by sharing with them the most successful techniques to learn and implement our subject matter.

“We have been able to educate the most challenging students with this approach. Our students begin to believe in themselves and they feel valued and they can now be educated.”

The North Salem High School Woods Manufacturing Program is one of the top high school woodworking training programs in the United States and is one of 26 vocational education programs supported by the Salem-Keizer School District. Dave Anderson built and managed the program and sought a professional woodworker to succeed him when he retired.

Mattson, who is lead instructor and has 30 years of business experience, was selected. Earlier this year, he received the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association (WMIA) Wooden Globe Award as Educator of the Year.

This national award has raised the program’s visibility and increased industry partnerships, including donations of equipment and cash.

The program serves about 200 students daily and 450 annually. Students participate each school year in sequenced courses that flow from Cabinet Making 1 as a freshman to Cabinet Making IV for seniors. Participating students also study English, math, science, social studies and a foreign language.

The Salem-Keizer School District is committed to strengthening and expanding its Career Technical Education programs, which allow students who may not be college bound the opportunity to explore career pathways and gain skills.

In the program, students make a simple cabinet to start, then a mortise and tenon furniture table, Greene and Greene end table, and construction of cabinets and other custom-ordered projects that provide financial support to the program.

Other areas of focus include lean manufacturing principles and production models, computer literacy, basic and advanced math, and how to be a successful wood business professional. Students can also earn a skills passport from the Woodworking Career Alliance that acknowledges their skills and ability to operate different kinds of equipment.

According to Mattson, “We are turning out students who can move directly into the workforce with applicable skills and an outstanding work ethic.”

Because of the importance of basic algebra and geometry in manufacturing and the effectiveness of teaching students math in a hands-on, applicable way, Mark Atkinson, a senior level math teacher, took a year out of the classroom to design a new integrated woods-math curriculum. As the program has grown, an assistant student instructor was added in 2012-13.

After completing the program in their senior year, qualified students who have completed the fourth year are linked to employment opportunities.

Custom Source Woodworking in Olympia, Wash., has come to Salem and interviewed all qualified seniors. Since the partnership began two years ago, all qualified seniors have been offered full-time employment. Students are offered $12-$15 per hour to start, and within three to five years of successful employment can earn $50,000 including benefits.

In addition, Mattson told CabinetMaker+FDM that all students who complete a class receive college credit through Portland Community College, at no cost to students who complete the cabinetmaking class.

The program needs current technology equipment to prepare students for trade schools and the industry. It is receiving donations of sophisticated equipment, and has partnered with Stiles Machinery to add a Vantech 480 CNC router.

Two multi routers, a JLT case clamp, Timesavers double-head sander, Casadei line boring machine have also been contributed this year, but not all of the machines have been installed. Also, Nederman has visited the North Salem shop and is planning to install a proper wood dust collection system.

“Industry has been exceedingly gracious to us. The district supplies about $3,000 for us but the actual cost to run this program is much greater.

"Companies contributing equipment, materials or cash include: Bessey Clamps, Cabinet Door Service, Cabinet Vision, Chidwick School of Woodworking, Doucet, FastCap, Franklin Adhesives, Grex, JDS Multi Router, JLT Clamps, Kreg, Leuco Tools, Miltec, National Builders Hardware, Oregon State Penitentiary, Quickscrews, Salem Paint, Salem Wood Products, SCM Group North America, States Industries, Stiles Machinery Inc., 3M, TigerStop, Timesavers, Veneer Specialties, Weinig, and Woodcraft.

Oregon employers such as Brian’s Cabinets in Bend, and Pacific Pine Products in Lakeview, have also contributed, and are seeking to hire graduates of the program.

Mattson and industry partners, especially Stiles Machinery, are also meeting with key Oregon wood products companies including Universal Forest Products, Lanz Cabinets, Bright Wood, Wood Grain Furniture Co., and others to solicit cash and in-kind donations.

“We are trying to use a business model of training individuals to step in for a lead instructor that retires or moves on,” Mattson says. “Currently we are using volunteers of different ages. Nathaniel Eckle is our full time student going to college to be a woods teacher. He is employed by Habitat for Humanity as a Youth Trainer Specialist. We are hoping he will complete his education degree and can apply for my position someday. This allows the program to move forward without a noticeable decrease in quality of education.

The high school is also very diverse with 60 percent of students enrolled in the English Language Learners program, primarily from Spanish-speaking households. Many are first generation Americans, the majority planning to directly enter the workforce rather than go to college. The Salem-Keizer School District reports that 65 percent of students are considered to be living in poverty.

Salem-Keizer School District continues to provide support for Mattson’s salary, and covers facility expenses and a small supply budget. As local and national industry leaders have learned about the quality of the program and, in particular, the quality of graduating students, support has increased dramatically. The program has raised more than $600,000 in the past few years, including donations of equipment, software, and materials.

Priorities for the current school year include incorporating math/woods curriculum into the math department, providing CNC education on a the CNC router, and narrowing the skills gap between graduates and the industry with the students whom accept industry offers.

Cash donations to cover the cost of maintenance, instruction, installation, freight and training are the biggest need right now, Mattson told CabinetMaker+FDM.

There is a need for people to understand and help these programs, and to find out how they can help.

“It is our desire to share with all that might listen what we have discovered and hope that they can see the magical results in the eyes of young people who have never felt valued or that they had very little hope of having a successful career and life,” Mattson says.

“One of our commitments is to serve on national industry boards (Mattson is joining the AWFS education committee) and committees to share our vision of Career Technical Education and how others can receive support from manufacturers and employers and then, implement this model into their schools.”

How can other schools build successful programs? “We’ve learned some things about that,” Mattson told CabinetMaker+FDM. “The best thing is for people to see this type of education in action. We welcome interested individuals to come here.”

What can a woodworking company do to be part of a partnership? “The customer and employer could go and meet with the principal of the school, or ask to see the woodworking instructor,” he says.

“If you had a local school with no woodworking program, they should contact a local district administrator who has some clout, and take that school administrator with them and see a good program.”

Mattson believes that there is plenty of money and plenty of machines to operate these programs, but instructors in outdated woodworking programs are in many cases not trying to update their programs, and may see them closed. “If you choose to run your program from the 1980s or 90s, you are in jeopardy of losing your program.”

Instructors at any school have to be committed to helping each student grow and gain the skills necessary to become a quality wood worker, move onto advanced education, and be a future employee.

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