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PBS Documentary Finds New Meaning in Shop Class

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When I was in wood and metal shop class in junior high school, I struggled to make some uneven wooden bookshelves, a metal hammer in which the head never screwed on properly to the handle, and a mysterious finger bowl fashioned out of tin. I pretty quickly decided I had a better future as a writer than as a carpenter or other form of skilled tradesman.

In "If You Build It," a remarkable education documentary by director Patrick Creadon, the 10 students in the special "Studio H" shop program in a rural North Carolina school system put my shaky bookshelves and useless hammer to shame.

The 84-minute film, airing Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on PBS's World Channel, an online channel that is also available over the air in some markets (check local listings), is so much more than a study of shop class in the 21st Century. (The film is part of the series "America Reframed" and will be available for free online for the next two years.)

It's 2010, and youngish Matthew Miller, an architect, and Emily Pilloton, a designer, who know their way with a power drill and other tools, have been invited to the 2,500-student Bertie County, N.C., school district by the superintendent, Chip Zullinger.

Miller and Pilloton, who are dating, proposed an intensive, one-year shop program with a $230,000 budget. Foundation grants cover $150,000 of that, while the school system was to pay the two a total of $80,000 for teacher salaries. The goal is to use the class to build not personal items for the students but projects that aid the community.

Studio H—the H stands for values such as habitats, health, humanity, and heart—finds a rural warehouse building, where Miller and Pilloton will teach design and hands-on shop skills to students through a project that will steadily grow in ambition throughout the school year.

The teachers ask the students if they are ready to get dirty. "Academia is too clean," Miller says. "There's something about getting dirty and getting your hands into the work."

But early in the school year, we see Miller and Pilloton checking the Internet and saying things like, "Yes, I just saw the news."

The Bertie County school board has dismissed Zullinger after a series of clashes, we are told. His initiatives are now at risk, including Project H. Miller and Pilloton think about how they can save it. They offer to forgo their salaries and run the program totally on the foundation grants for the year.

A school board member wants to be sure that no district funds will go to the program, and once so assured, the program continues. Miller and Pilloton will be living off their credit cards for the foreseeable future.

"One of the biggest things missing in Bertie County is foresight," Pilloton says.

With the program on, the projects start small. An assignment to build "cornhole" boards, for the bean-bag tossing game, leads to a successful fundraiser. Next, the students use their skills to build new kinds of chicken coops.

The town of Windsor, the seat of Bertie County, suffers flooding, which makes things even more difficult for the small businesses in the town. We're told that it's the kind of place where even the opening of a Domino's pizza place made a dent in the unemployment rate. 

"There's nothing to make me want to stay" in the town after high school, one student says.

For its big project, the shop class has teamed up with some local farmers and others to design and build a farmers' market stand. The 10 students in the Studio H class all come up with innovative ideas, and after a winnowing process, a very creative design is selected. 

"We're basically a design firm full of 16-year-olds," Pilloton says. By this time, the students are enthusiastic about the shop classes, and now they will be doing most of the work on the farmers' market. There will be some additional adult help, and there will be lots of challenges to get the design built.

Miller sometimes comes across as frustrated, and he and Pilloton put their relationship on hold. Still, both are warm, engaging teachers.

It will take more than the rest of the school year, summer vacation, and then some, for the project to reach its goal. (The students were paid for their work during the summer, we're told.)

Miller and Pilloton have laid the groundwork for a successful program, and they are appreciated by their students. But it doesn't seem as if the school system fully appreciates their efforts. It would have been good if some board members or the new superintendent had appeared on camera to discuss the impact of the program. (It's not clear whether the filmmakers sought them out or whether they declined to do so.)

A new farmers' market may not solve all of Bertie County's economic challenges or its missing sense of "foresight," but it's a start. 

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