Curtis Fisher, a CTEC construction instructor, works with senior Caleb Susee while building a wall as part of the CTEC residential construction program on Wednesday, Feb. 10. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When Salem high schools closed abruptly last March, Reed Hamilton, 18, worried about finishing his classes online.

But the McNary High School senior had another pressing concern: Would he still be able to build a house with his classmates before graduation?

“I’ve been looking forward to it since my freshman year,” he said of the build.

Hamilton is one of 28 seniors in Salem-Keizer’s Career Technical Education Center residential construction program, a two-year offering for juniors and seniors who want to spend half their school week learning a trade hands-on.

Juniors in the program learn about design and construction and build sheds at the sprawling campus on Portland Road. Seniors get to put those skills to more practical use, constructing a home from the foundation up. The lot is purchased by Advanced Construction Education, a Salem-based nonprofit organization, which also lines up a contractor to supervise the build and complete some work, like plumbing, that students can’t do. Once finished, the house is sold at market rates.

District high schools remain largely closed aside from brief in-person sessions to help struggling students. But on a lot at the end of Apollo Avenue in a northeast Salem subdivision, Hamilton and his classmates have built a foundation, put down sheeting and are raising the walls on an 1,800 square foot home.

Rhonda Rhodes, principal of the Career Technical Education Center, said they’ve worked hard to get kids hands-on education this year even in the face of Covid health restrictions, which limit the number of students who can be in a classroom.

“You can’t learn to weld in your living room, and you can’t paint a car at your kitchen,” she said.

Since October, students have been able to come to classes for two hours per day, once a week for the hands-on portion of their programs. Normally, they’d be on campus for two full school days weekly.

Seniors in the construction program are spending that time on the job site, building a home.

Ben Ponce, 18, a senior at McKay High School, has worked with his dad on roofing projects for years. He said the promise of building a home led him to choose the construction program over manufacturing, but he remembered thinking it might not happen when his English teacher warned him in mid-March schools might shut down.

“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh dang, I might not get a senior year,’” he said.

In September, he said the class found out they’d get to go ahead as planned.

“I was super excited. It’s hard to teach this on Zoom,” construction instructor Curtis Fisher said.

Normally, Fisher would have 14 students on-site for about three hours daily. Now, he’s restricted to two hours with smaller groups of six to nine students. But despite the challenges, Fisher said the build is on schedule to be finished by the end of the year.

Hamilton is a volunteer firefighter with the Sublimity Fire District and said he’d like to pursue a firefighting career after high school. He likes building things, but said the program is also practical for firefighting.

“It’s good to know how houses are built and usually laid out,” he said.

This week, his class raised the home’s interior walls.

“I love working with my hands and seeing the final outcome,” Hamilton said.

The center, which has 10 programs, is in many ways built for Covid protocols, Rhodes said. Most students wear protective gear of some type because of the nature of their work, and the large campus makes it easier for students to spread out.

The Covid restrictions have posed some additional challenges - Rhodes said it took her three tries to find a mask the district’s risk management office approved for welding students to wear under their hoods, because cloth and surgical masks are both flammable.

They’ve also upgraded to fog-resistant goggles so students’ lenses don’t fog up from wearing a face covering.

“We don’t want them to lose fingers because they can’t see and they’re operating a chop saw,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

WE GET SALEM THE FACTS. Covering your community with care and depth. Salem Reporter - fair, accurate, independent. Subscribe and support our essential local service.