In Ross River, students gain work and life experience

If you ever took wood shop in high school, it's a fairly safe bet that your parents still own a collection of trinkets you proudly brought home for them - misshapen bowls and ashtrays, toy cars that don't roll quite right, and

If you ever took wood shop in high school, it’s a fairly safe bet that your parents still own a collection of trinkets you proudly brought home for them – misshapen bowls and ashtrays, toy cars that don’t roll quite right, and the ever-popular wooden cutting boards.

Not so at the Ross River school. There, the shop students are busy making picnic tables and benches to beautify the school grounds and dog houses to sell to community members.

The shop is one of a number of new projects at the Ross River school designed to teach the students professional skills and to keep them showing up every day.

“We’re just trying to make it more interesting for the kids to come to school,” said Bryan Clubbe, who teaches the carpentry class to the Grade 9 and 10 students. “It’s just a way to try to engage them.”

Clubbe said this is the first year the Ross River school has had a working wood shop for as long as he can remember. The school recently got a bunch of new equipment, including a table saw, a jointer, a planer, a band saw and a drill press.

He decided he wanted to help the kids fill a need in the community, so they started building dog houses to sell to their neighbours. He said they built seven or eight earlier in the school year.

“They sold no problem,” he said. “We just stopped them because we didn’t want to build dog houses all year long.”

Next, he noticed that parents didn’t have anywhere to sit while they watched their children in the playground behind the school, so he got his students to build some park benches.

After that, it was picnic tables. He wants to build some garden boxes, too, “just to kind of spruce up the playground a little bit.”

They’ve even started work on a cabin in front of the school, where elders could tell the kids stories and teach them to tan a moose hide or skin a marten.

Once they’ve finished refurbishing the school grounds, he plans to sell the students’ handiwork to community members. The proceeds would go back to the wood shop, to help pay for new equipment or new projects.

“We’re teaching the kids a bit about entrepreneurship and some hard carpentry skills,” Clubbe said. “I think it’s a practical skill for kids to have.”

At this time of year, it can be tough to keep the students coming to school, Clubbe said. They tend to stay out late as the days grow longer, and they’re groggy in the mornings.

But the carpentry work gets them outside and keeps them busy, and helps them with some academic tools, too.

“You’re kind of tricking them into learning some measuring and math skills,” he said.

Jeremiah Shorty, 14, said he likes the shop class because it lets him be creative. He already had some carpentry skills from when he helped build a cabin, but he’s learning new things in school.  

“I just picture in my head how I want it to be,” he said. “You could make your own things and learn by the mistakes of screwing up.”

Shorty also works in the Ross River school’s Kaska Cafe, which gives students a chance to get some work experience, a professional reference and some pocket money.

The cafe was started a couple of years ago, and serves coffee and desserts to community members into the evening.

The Grade 9 and 10 students are responsible for managing and cleaning the cafe and serving customers. If they maintain good attendance at school, they get chosen to work at the cafe.

“There’s not that much job opportunities here in Ross,” Shorty said, adding that the work has helped him become more comfortable around customers.

Kodei Symonds, the teacher overseeing the cafe, said it helps students prepare for work after graduation.

“It’s not like it’s a huge moneymaker, but we do it so they get that experience,” he said.

This year, even the younger kids at the Ross River school are building their professional skills.

In September, Marie Belanger and her three Grade 6 students developed a plan to buy a snow cone machine for the school to run as a business venture.

They needed $2,000 to get set up, however, so they put together a video pitch to present to the Ross River Dena Council.

The band council agreed to fund their project, and now they have a brand-new machine with eight snow cone flavours that they sell to other students and parents every Friday.

Belanger explained that 20 per cent of the profit is used to pay for supplies to keep the machine running. Another 30 per cent goes to the band council to pay off part of the loan.

The rest goes to the students, but it’s not all pocket money.

“Half of the money they make has to go in a bank account for college,” Belanger explained. “I didn’t want to just give it to them to spend it.”

Darian Rogers, 11, is already looking to the future and said the snow cone work will help him build his resume. He said his job is usually to make the snow cones, while the other two students pour in the flavoured syrup and work the till. They also have to spend some time cleaning up the sticky syrup at the end of the day.

“I’m not a fan of cleaning but it’s worth it,” he said. Aside from learning to make snow cones, he now knows how to pitch an idea to an investor and how to borrow money.

And that’s what all the projects at the Ross River school are really about – learning responsibility and getting ready for life after school.

“Students experience real-life situations and I think this prepares them better for their future careers,” said Fran Etzel, the school’s principal. She said the cafe and snow-cone work, in particular, helps build the students’ confidence and makes them less shy.

“I thought it was cool because I just moved here this year. All the other schools didn’t do that much stuff like that,” Rogers said. “Usually it’s just … nothing fun and exams all the time.”

Contact Maura Forrest at

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