This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A dozen students sat in a small classroom situated within the welding shop in Benjamin Franklin High School’s basement, calling out answers to a math problem.
They were part of the school’s new Summer Bridge program, a voluntary summer school that is designed to help incoming freshmen adjust to the demands of the career and technical education (CTE) curriculum at the school’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Engineering Technology.
The students used the hourly wage of a welder to calculate a daily wage of $197.
“So if you’re working five days, how much per week?” the teacher asked.
When one student shouted out “985 a week,” another responded with “your pockets would be fat!” The response was met by laughter and applause from his peers. The students were describing the salaries of welding jobs they could apply for after they graduate.
“The intention is to expose them to what we have to offer and bridge that gap from middle to high school,” said principal Gregory Hailey of the summer classes. “Start whetting their appetite. Make sure that this is something they take seriously.”
Louis Bartholetti just finished his sophomore year at the center, where he took courses in the welding program.
“I really like the mix between the manufacturing classes and the academics — that’s what drew me to the school, actually. There’s a draw to work harder because I’m in this program,” Bartholetti said. “I like the manufacturing aspect — getting to create something.”
Bartholetti said every welding class starts with 15 minutes of safety instruction from their teacher while students take notes.
“Then we go straight into the shop and start working on pieces and different techniques,” he said. “This year I learned about stick welding, which is an electrode used to fuse two metals. But some other kids were working on MIG [metal inert gas] welding, which feeds a wire through a tube, and that’s used to fuse the two pieces of metal together.”
Students’ days at the center are separated into four block periods — 90 minutes each — of classes. Each student has two academic classes, a manufacturing class, and then an elective.
“It flows pretty well,” said Bartholetti. “Last year I was in Introduction to Art. That was really fun. We weren’t just learning about art history, we were actually drawing and painting in class. I signed up for AP Art next year.”
Students can also take electives, classes in gym, or one of the other CTE courses.
Growing the center
By the end of 2015, the center had more than 500 students.
The CTE programs accept students from all over the city, Hailey said, even though Ben Franklin is still a neighborhood high school. The school now has students from 35 zip codes.
Last year, the center offered four specialized programs: Welding Technology, Precision Machining & Milling, Electromechanical/Mechatronics, and Electronics Technology.
Hailey explained he is still trying to add several new programs, but expects that just Pre-Engineering and Computer Aided Drafting & Design (CADD) will be ready in time for the start of the school year.
In the CADD program, students will learn to use software to design custom parts for machines. They can then use Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines to produce them in the school’s lab.
Hailey said the pool of jobs requiring these skills is expanding as automation becomes more common in manufacturing.
“In industry, this is what they use to replace custom parts. You can’t just go buy a new widget,” he said.]
Pre-Engineering is a common freshman program at universities offering degrees in engineering. It typically focuses on math, physics, and chemistry, but at Ben Franklin it will also include time in the Pre-Engineering lab, equipped with 3D printers installed over the summer.
It’s not just the Pre-Engineering students who plan to go to college.
Bartholetti hasn’t decided where he wants to go after graduation yet, but he “would definitely like to attend college. I plan on doing as well as I can in my academic courses.”
Hailey said the center also prepared a lab and classroom for the upcoming Renewable Energy program, where students will learn to build and maintain common system components like solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells. Hailey wants the new teacher to lead students in conducting an energy audit of the building to determine how the school could be made more energy-efficient.
Nicholas Gasis, assistant director of the District’s Office of Career & Technical Education, said Ben Franklin’s Mechatronics, Machining, and CADD programs are the only such programs in the city, and the center’s Renewable Energy program will be the first in the state.
Bartholetti said he wanted to take an elective course in Renewable Energy once the program’s up and running.
“We’re not exactly treating the planet that well,” he said. “I think renewable energy is only going to be more important in the future.”
The District is interviewing teachers for the Renewable Energy program, but filling the position could take a while because candidates must first commit to getting certified from an accredited university, which they have to pay for themselves.
The school was able to open itsr Industrial Building Maintenance program last year after Overbrook High School closed its program and Ben Franklin hired Overbrook’s CTE teacher.
The program teaches students the basics of safety, construction, and electrical wiring. Last year, students learned carpentry by using band saws and sanders to build tables and learned basic wiring skills by making lamps.
Bartholetti said safety is also a big component of the Welding program.
“During the beginning of the year, we focused on learning safety and being prepared to go into the shop to start working.” Bartholetti said. “Then, as the year progressed, we had more time in the shop where we could actually learn the skill hands-on. By the middle to the end of the year, we were mostly working in the shop,” except for the safety review during the first 15 minutes of class.
A path to careers
Hailey said he wants to expand the number of students who get work experience through internships.
“We’ll have them doing three years in their programs and probably doing an internship in their final year.” Hailey said internships would be awarded only to experienced students, based on ability.
Reginald Moton is the career awareness specialist at Ben Franklin, responsible for creating relationships with local businesses for internships and workplace tours.
Bartholetti said his favorite trip of the year was to an oil refinery.
“We got to see their underwater tank, where you can actually see welders training to become underwater welders,” Bartholetti said.
When Bartholetti graduates, he will have the certification needed to start training as an underwater welder, but he wants to go to college instead. Still, he didn’t rule it out, saying “there’s a lot of good money in it — and there’s a lot of jobs open, too — so possibly.”
After his sophomore year in the welding program, Moton helped Bartholetti get a paid internship working for the Philadelphia Streets Department. His job was to “log service reports” for the solar-powered “big-belly trash cans” around the city.
“I would put in the data, looking for any changes in the status of the can, and looking for alerts – so if any damage was done to the can, I would put it into the database.”
Moton placed three other students in summer jobs at the Streets Department and the Naval Shipyard as part of the Center’s partnership with WorkReady Philadelphia, an organization that partners with local businesses to get students work experience before they leave high school. Moton hopes to expand the number of students in summer jobs as the center grows.
Bartholetti said he wants to get a four-year college degree in Business Management and start his own small business.
“I could see myself opening a welding shop. I’ve also always been interested in construction and contracting. It would be cool to build a business doing that.
“Even if, after college, I don’t get a labor job, I still have the understanding of what it’s like to be in that position.”
Greg Windle is a freelance writer for the Notebook.