Students of newish high school woodworking program earn Sawblade certificates
August 1, 2021 | 4:46 pm CDT
Columbia Early Prep College High School woodworking program

Five of the first six students ever to earn Sawblade certificates at Columbia Early College Prep High School pose with their awards.

It’s said that when the bandsaw leaves the building, it’s never coming back and neither is the woodshop program it was used in.

Sadly, this adage has proven applicable time and time again at high schools across America where woodworking programs have been axed because of budget cuts, classroom space reallocations, the difficulty to find qualified instructors, or other reasons.

That’s why against the backdrop of this disturbing national trend, it’s worth celebrating what’s happening at Columbia Early College High School in Columbia, NC. Just two years ago, the high school hired Ben O’Kelley to help launch a woodworking program. This spring, O’Kelley helped six of his students earn their Woodwork Career Alliance (WCA) Sawblade certificates.

Starting up a woodworking program
Columbia High School is located in a remote rural area about an hour from the Atlantic Ocean is the only high school within the Tyrell County Schools. According to USA Today, student enrollment was 172 during the 2018-19 academic year. Ninety-eight percent of those students were considered “economically disadvantaged” and qualified for free lunches. But despite their financial challenges, 95 percent of Columbia’s students graduated, slightly higher than the state’s average, according to USA Today.

Columbia Early Prep College High School woodworking program
Columbia High School student tries out the bench chair he is working on.

O’Kelley said he was hired because the district’s school board saw an opportunity for students not planning to attend college to learn skills that would allow them to pursue a career in the trades. “There are a lot of manufacturing companies in our area looking for skilled help,” O’Kelley said. “Our hands-on program prepares them to enter the job market.”

Prior to coming on board at Columbia, O’Kelley taught woodworking for 10 years at John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, NC. “I grew up using my hands. I took woodshop and construction, built stuff around the house, and worked on cars,” O’Kelley says. “I went to school to get a degree in architectural design but realized I wasn’t content to sit at a desk. So, I became a woodworking instructor instead.”

During his stint at Holmes High School, O’Kelley learned about the WCA. He liked the fact that the WCA’s skill standards have been vetted by the woodworking industry. He successfully trained to become a WCA accredited skill evaluator during a summer in-service program focused on career technical education for North Carolina teachers.

O’Kelley said his experience teaching woodworking courses structured around the WCA’s skill standards is one of the reasons he got the Columbia job. In getting Columbia’s woodworking program up and running, O’Kelley recommended that the new program become an EDUcation member of the WCA.

Columbia Early Prep College High School woodworking program
A student produces shelf supports for a project at Columbia High.

Columbia currently offers students two levels of woodworking as an elective. Each course meets five days a week for one semester. The courses are open to students of all grade levels with the caveat that they must first pass Woods 1 to take Woods 2.

In Woods 1, students get an overview of basic woodworking machinery along with a strong emphasis on safety. Their projects are all assigned by O’Kelley such as a bandsaw box and a small bookshelf. Students can also earn the OSHA-10 Construction certificate, which includes training on job-site hazards, hand and power tool safety, and more.

In Woods 2, students learn to read plans and tackle more complex projects, including building a nightstand. They are also given more freedom to choose projects that they can use such as gaming tables and surfboards. “I just kind of guide them,” O’Kelley says.

In addition, Woods 2 students work toward earning their WCA Sawblade certificates. That requires passing an online test of fundamental woodworking knowledge and measuring skills, plus passing hands-on evaluations for setting up and operating standard woodworking machines including a table saw and jointer.

O’Kelley’s course description posted on Columbia’s website, notes, “My goal is to keep the ‘book work’ to a minimum as (the) majority of the topics and skills can be learned through the hands-on activities. However, student behavior, safety, and equipment will dictate when and how often projects will be used.”

Overcoming challenges
O’Kelley said he has overall enjoyed the challenges of creating a new woodworking program from scratch. The biggest exception of course was the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We had about 30 students for the year split between Woods 1 and Woods 2,” O’Kelley says. “The fall 2020 semester was all remote, live-streamed on Google Classrooms. I wasn’t able to offer the Sawblade certification then because they couldn’t come to school and they didn’t have the tools needed at home. It was a struggle.

“The spring semester was a hybrid schedule. Students would come to school some days and those that chose to stay home could come in after hours,” O’Kelley continues. “The six kids who got Sawblade certificates this spring included one student who studied remote and would come and see me after hours to work on his projects. Those were the first six students in our program to get their certificates,” O’Kelley says.

Another challenge that O’Kelley confronted early on came after the district purchased new woodworking equipment but then ran out of funds to build a classroom to house it. As a result, the new equipment was placed in storage and O’Kelley’s woodworking classes shared space and older model equipment with the school’s agricultural program.

That’s about to change, though, because of a partnership with the nearby Pocosin Art School of Fine Craft. Pocosin was awarded grant money to renovate its building, including adding new space for a woodshop that will be used by Columbia students during on weekdays and for adult programs on weeknights and weekends.

O’Kelley said he was able to provide input for the new woodshop, including interacting with the architects of the project. The machinery that was purchased for the Columbia woodworking program will be moved from storage to Pocosin. O’Kelley said students should have access to the new facility sometime this fall.

Columbia Early Prep College High School woodworking program
A trio of corner cabinets made by Columbia High woodworking students in Woods 2,

“The center is within walking distance of school — about two or three blocks,” O’Kelley said. “Pocosin is putting in dust collection and the school district is providing the woodworking equipment that’s been waiting to be used for the past two years.”

O’Kelley says it was great to return to some sense of normalcy this past spring. “Students were only in class a couple of days a week and they were wearing masks, but most importantly they were able to be here and make things.

“I’m really looking forward to giving the kids bigger, more in-depth projects this fall,” O’Kelly adds. “We’ll have a lot more space when the Pocosin woodshop opens. I know that many of the students are looking forward to that as well.”

Learn more about the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America.

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Rich Christianson | President/Owner/C-Level

Rich Christianson is the owner of Richson Media LLC, a Chicago-based communications firm focused on the industrial woodworking sector. Rich is the former long-time editorial director and associate publisher of Woodworking Network. During his nearly 35-year career, Rich has toured more than 250 woodworking operations throughout North America, Europe and Asia and has written extensively on woodworking technology, design and supply trends. He has also directed and promoted dozens of woodworking trade shows, conferences and seminars including the Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo and the Woodworking Machinery & Supply Conference & Expo, Canada’s largest woodworking show.