Five months ago, Andre Minor was "doing nothing on the streets," he says. At 20, he was going nowhere and getting there late. His best hope: trying to qualify for a job changing light bulbs in the D.C. public schools.
For Michael Washington, 21, the fast-food eateries where he flipped burgers and mopped floors after classes at Bell Vocational High School seemed like a dead end. "You see, you stop learning in jobs like that," he says. "I wanted to get my foot in the door of something better."
Tuesday, when 40 inner-city youths graduate from the Cooperative Employer Education Program's (CEEP) 20-week housing rehabilitation project, Minor will receive the Punctuality Award and Washington will get the Most Reliable Award. "I'll have my diploma and I'll be feeling good," says Washington, one of five electrician trainees in the program's first year. "This is a stepping stone so I can better myself. The bottom line: I love to work. Money is out there. Now I'll move on and try to build my empire."
Analogies of rehabilitating an abandoned house and reviving a young person's dreams are endless. Replace a broken window, repair shattered hopes. Renovate a burnt-out attic, rebuild a poor self-image. That's what D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Floretta McKenzie had in mind when she searched for a way to open the doors to first jobs for the District's 3,164 vocational students.
About that time, the Building and Construction Advisory Council -- some of the top contractors and businessmen in Washington -- was trying to solve another problem: a serious shortage of trained mechanics in the building and maintenance trades. McKenzie and the council turned to the Home Builders Institute (HBI), the educational arm of the National Association of Home Builders.
"Our industry is one of the best for reaching into the school system and helping it train people for marketable jobs . . ." says HBI president Phil Polivchak. "We're doing that in a number of programs around the country, but this one is unique. This is the greatest pre-apprenticeship program we have been involved in."
Polivchak says the pilot CEEP program is different from the HBI's special youth training programs in other cities and unlike vocational high school new-house projects in Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties. CEEP provides training at the school level, pays trainees $70 a week, places them in jobs after completing the program, helps counter a shortage of skilled workers -- and, says Polivchak, "there is that wonderful byproduct of returning once uninhabitable housing units to the community."
"Hey, Rod. Rod," a distressed voice booms down a newly painted stairway of the four-bedroom row house at 2022 Klingle Rd. NW that a few months ago was a burned-out and abandoned mess.
"Yeah?" screams back Rod McCoy, the CEEP program's building and apartment maintenance instructor, a former rehab contractor and social worker who had brought a crew of eight trainees to the site to complete the trim painting. No answer. McCoy yells again: "I can tell by the sound of your voice what the problem is. Clean it up."
The house, in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood behind the National Zoo, went up in smoke a year ago, driving out its public-housing tenants. It remained boarded up until last March when CEEP instructors started estimating the damage there and at two other abandoned houses, one at 70 U St. NW with a sewer back-up problem, and a third, at 1447 Monroe St. NW, which was closed because of excessive utility costs. All three belong to the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which funds about 90 percent of the CEEP program.
"The house had very little structural damage," says McCoy. But "ceilings and walls were completely blackened. Linoleum on the floors was melted. A freezer full of food had leaked all over. It's basically a big clean-up job. We wanted to retain the original character of the house."
The CEEP maintenance and construction crew tackled the project first, hauling out five truckloads of debris, repeatedly rinsing woodwork and walls, scraping floors, removing blistered paint and prepping the entire house for repainting -- once with a special primer to stop the smell of smoke, and then with interior paint. Masonry trainees shored up brickwork and damaged exterior, electrical and plumbing crews rewired and replaced the plumbing throughout the house and carpentry students replaced damaged woodwork and drywall.
To Donnell Cowherd, 22, the neighborhood eyesore was a beautiful sight. He used to hike from his Kalorama Road home to the National Cathedral, hoping to get work with the boiler-room crew. When HBI officials came by Bell Vocational, where he was taking courses, to stir up interest in the program, he signed up and was accepted.
"The beauty is to see this house finished and be able to say I was part of it," says Cowherd, nicknamed Perfect because he would get "totally disappointed" if jobs weren't done just right. Standing in the basement of the Klingle Road house, he recalls five months on the project:
"You're getting on-the-job training, and it's up to you to come here and learn. To see all of us work together and to see the progress that we made is really beautiful."
Cowherd says the program's weekly classes are as critical as the plumbing skills he learned. There are two things, say the trainees, you can count on every Friday: The trashmen come and so does Alfred Jones. An educational consultant, Jones starts his classes chanting their adopted motto: "If it's to be, it's up to me." Classroom work includes "life skills" -- re'sume' writing, interview role-playing, how to open a bank account, how to gain self-confidence -- as well as mathematics and black history.
The entire training program is operated like a school, says Janet Capazo, HBI national coordinator for communications. "Not only are the students graded on accomplishments in the skills of construction and maintenance, but also in the disciplines of punctuality, confidence, courtesy, grooming and self-control, among others. They get report cards that grade them on each category."
Those report cards are hot items to potential employers, says Dave Shreve, the HBI program manager who oversees the CEEP project and has been finding jobs for the trainees. "We'll place 100 percent," he says. "We've already had some placements. Rehabilitation and electrical contractors picked up a couple of students for work by the new Zayre's in Northeast. I just placed one plumber over at McLean Gardens, and a drywall contractor with a $1.5 million job on 16th Street said he'd take all the people we had with drywall experience.
"I go in every Friday and give a pep talk to convince the students they need to stay till the end and not take those $6.50-an-hour jobs they can get right now. I don't think it'll take three weeks after graduation to place everybody."
The week before graduation, expectations at the U Street house run high, even if finishing touches on the 90-year-old, Italian-designed row house won't be complete.
"I figure I could go out and do this work on my own now," says Rita Choice, a carpentry student and one of three women in the program. Choice, 24, is getting the Most Persistent Award. She looks around the house where a sewer blockage was repaired, a separate housing unit was created in the basement, and a bedroom added upstairs, and says, "I've learned a lot from this program. I want to be my own contractor someday."
Another carpentry trainee talks about gaining confidence. David Morgan, 22, a dropout from Spingarn High School, says, "This helped me a lot. This made me happy. Now I like to work." He says he wants to use his skills to work his way through college and become a social worker.
Bruce Harrison, 20, wants to apply his plumbing knowledge toward cleaning up some of Washington's rundown neighborhoods. "This job gave me reason to get up in the morning. Before, I just couldn't get a break. This program is that break for me. I got some skills now."
A student carrying paint cans sees HBI's Capazo, who's planning the graduation ceremony, looking for wheelbarrows to stock with ice and soft drinks. "Are we going to have a graduation book with pictures of the houses -- you know, before and after?" he asks. Capazo likes the idea. She wants it to be like a school graduation, caps and gowns, guest speakers, awards. She hopes the mayor will show up, maybe even Jesse Jackson.
Down the alley from the U Street project, at the Crispus Attucks Museum and Park of the Arts, Rick Sowell is getting together "a couple hundred" volunteers to clean up the neighborhood for the graduation. Sowell, the museum's executive director, expects some mothers on the block will provide cookies and cakes. "We're used to seeing partnerships in this neighborhood," he says.
"Our younger kids see these guys graduating -- it might be something they'll want to be involved in," says Sowell. "They see that house metamorphosed from a shell to when a new family moves in. It sets an example . . . something other than just throwing your hands up and quitting."