In Birmingham, Alabama, one school is offering its students an education that is changing their lives and their family’s lives forever.
The unique program is called Build UP (Urban Prosperity) Birmingham, and it is transforming the way educators look at schooling. From freshman to senior year, the students earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree while working as paid apprentices in construction work. As part of their training, they remodel actual houses in their Ensley neighborhood — and eventually get the opportunity to claim a home of their own!
At any school, the burden on teachers can be incredibly heavy, but for those in low-income areas, the barriers are that much heavier. Educator Mark Martin has watched teachers encounter issues like hunger and mental illness, and they struggle to provide proper aid, leaving them feeling totally defeated.
“The kids that I’ve worked with my entire career have all been from pretty tough backgrounds in really low-income areas with very limited options and all the challenges that come in the door with the poverty,” Mark told Fast Company.
So he decided to provide a new path! He founded Build UP in 2018 to offer students a different kind of education: real-world training.
As far as real-world issues are concerned, for low-income communities, one of the biggest needs is housing.
Originally built for steel mill workers, the town of Ensley saw a major decline when the steel mill closed and the population diminished. This made the housing situation fall apart, leading to empty, dilapidated houses sitting idly for decades.
“Most are actually below the poverty line,” Mark said of their students. “But all of them are renting somewhere, and many are renting from slumlords — mold and mildew and just a really rotten situation.”
That’s why Build UP made construction their main focus, offering a hybrid of regular and specialized classes. That way, instead of sitting in a geometry class and hearing the age-old question, “When am I ever going to use this?” their teachers are able to redirect them to a shop class. There, they can connect those math principles to building a roof.
The program hopes to draw in students who are on the precipice of quitting school altogether by offering a biweekly stipend for their apprenticeships.
Students receive $125 every two weeks when they start out and can eventually work up to $200. After two years, their families are eligible to claim one of the remodeled homes as their own for the same price as the monthly rent they were already paying.
And that’s not all! Upon graduation from the program, students have the opportunity to get a no-interest loan to actually purchase the home or even become landlords themselves.
There is one condition: They must first commit to taking an additional action step for their education or career, such as making a plan to receive a bachelor’s degree, getting an official job in construction, or starting up a business of their own.
In preparation for this, the program adds to their real-world education by teaching them everyday skills such as home repair and budgeting.
“It’s really tough to teach high schoolers about budgeting and about financial literacy if they’re flat-out broke,” Mark said. “So by giving our students biweekly stipend checks, and kind of treating them like paychecks, it gives us ground to really talk to them about budgeting … and all these things that we know, ultimately, our students need to be successful in this world.”
The program has thought of every possible need, even connecting the students with local partners who can provide extra support, such as mental health professionals and banks that are willing and able to assist them with their finances.
Recently, the school even started working with homeowners in a nearby high-income suburb. They have started donating their houses to the program instead of tearing them down. In fact, they have donated 25 homes over the past year and a half! Each one is trucked over to Birmingham, where the students get to work.
“We’re basically recycling homes that otherwise were bound for a landfill,” Mark explained.
One of Mark’s main goals is providing low-income families with not only sufficient houses, but also equal opportunities to own them.
As he put it, “For us, it was if we’re going to change the racial wealth gaps in this country, we have to think of equity differently: not just in terms of fairness, but in terms of ownership.”
So far, they’re doing a pretty amazing job! Since the program’s launch, Ensley has already seen a transformation, with seven families now living in renovated homes — and four more homes on the way.
The best part is the impact the program has had on the students as they see how their own hard work is affecting their neighborhood.
“There’s nothing that builds hopefulness and agency like being a change agent in your own community,” Mark said. “You’re walking past blight, day in, day out … and then all of a sudden, one day, you take that blighted yard that nobody’s touched in years, and you clear all that blight, and you make it a catalyst for more change in that community.”
And with a little help from mortgage loan company Fannie Mae’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, the program now has the opportunity to bring their life-changing model to communities everywhere!
Their plan is to first add another program in a nearby Birmingham neighborhood, followed by a third one in Cleveland. After that, they hope to train others to start similar schools, spreading the initiative to new communities and adding to their network of partners — particularly construction companies that can offer jobs to their students.
“It’s this model of taking young people, who are our community’s most valuable assets, and empowering them to really take the lead on whatever direction their community needs to go in,” Mark explained. “Our vision is that we just empower and equip youth and communities to determine their own future.”
Now that’s a mission we can all get behind! We can’t wait to watch this program transform communities all across the country — and beyond!
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