At  Hartford Union High School, Hartford, Wis., the days of shop class being a second-rate course with outdated equipment and facilities are a thing of the past.

In October 2001 the school ushered in a new era of wood technology education when it unveiled an expanded technology education wing complete with two wood labs and professional-grade machinery.

When Jason Kraus, head of Hartford's wood technology program, started teaching at the school four years ago, it offered only one level of wood technology classes.

"There was only one small wood lab before. Because of this the school could only offer limited classes to a limited number of interested students," says Kraus.

The need to change  

All of that started to change in the fall of 2000 when area industry executives told Hartford that its existing vocational facilities were outdated, crowded and dangerous.

In response, the school went to the community in search of funds to expand and update its technology education.

In November 2000 the community countered by passing a $2.9 million referendum for a 15,000-square-foot expansion.

With the help of this expansion, Kraus and his fellow colleagues John Longeran and Jeff Opichka have expanded the wood technology program to include four levels of coursework and a co-op program servicing more than 250 students in those classes everyday.

In the first year, wood technology students learn the basics of woodworking and build a small footstool.

"The students have to follow dimensions set out by me and so forth. There is some custom work they do as far as the top routing of the footstool, but for the most part they follow a box plan," says Kraus.

The first-semester students are also in their own woodshop, which Kraus calls his "backyard shop." Here Kraus's students learn how to work on the basic woodworking machines, such as a Delta band saw, table saw, jointer and sander.

"Students spend a lot of time at workbenches during their first semester trying to figure things out," says Kraus. "It is nice to have a separate, more traditional lab setting for them to work in by themselves."

The next level  

In their second- and third-level classes the wood technology students start working with heavier machinery. It is then that Kraus' students move out the "backyard shop" and into the professional one. Here students are faced with the task of learning larger, more modern machinery, such as an SCM point-to-point boring machine, Safety Speed Cut vertical panel saw and a Grass hinge insertion machine.

"The students use everything they would if they were in a professional shop," says Kraus. "The only difference is that they are still running box programs that I have written instead of their own."

For their second-level project students construct a small end table that Kraus says helps teach them basic cabinet construction techniques such as dowel, 32 mm, panel and face frame construction.

At the third level students start working on what Kraus calls mass production.

"Right now they are all building a Mission-style table," says Kraus. "For this they have to make two to 14 of the same parts, and obviously, if they aren't all the same, the table won't come together."

While Kraus says the school isn't allowed to make a profit off its classes, such as selling the students' mass-production projects, he believes the class gets the students ready for the detailed, no-mistakes work they are going to have to produce after graduation.

Kraus also feels the classes instill a sense of pride in workmanship.

"At least a few times a week I have the labs open after school and the students will come in and work on their class projects or the older ones will do their own work," says Kraus. "And, you can see they care, because of the extra time they put in or the money they'll pay out of their own pockets to use more expensive materials than the lab fee gives them."

The real world  

With an eye toward graduation, fourth-level students start custom cabinetmaking for the school's Vision house.

Built every year, the Vision house is completely designed, built and even landscaped by Hartford students.

"The cabinet class makes the vanities for the house," says Kraus. "The students have blueprints to follow and they program the machines just as they would in their own cabinet shop."

After the Vision house project, which Kraus says usually takes the first quarter of the school year, the students work on their own custom projects, which in the past have ranged from gun cabinets to entertainment centers.

The school also offers a fifth-level co-op program for interested students during the afternoon hours with local companies such as J & V Lakewood Cabinets, Reibau's Custom Cabinets, Lannon Millwork and August H. Wulf Co.

For students who aren't able to get to a co-op, an independent wood technology class is offered.

"When I was in high school, the school didn't place me with a cabinet shop or give me credit, so I worked at one on my own after school," says Kraus. "It is really nice to be able to give my students an opportunity I didn't have.

"The community has really begun to understand the need for these kinds of students and some of the students are seeing the benefits of learning a trade, as opposed to getting a four-year degree," says Kraus.

With only 50 percent of its students going onto college and the other 50 percent entering the workplace or going on to technical school, Hartford has succeeded in bringing its wood technology education into the new century as well. 

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.