By JENNY HURWITZ
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The construction workers wiggled the wall-sized piece of synthetic siding left and then right, angling it against the half-finished shed in hopes of finding the perfect alignment.
After a number of tries, the workers, all students at Cuillier Career Center in Marrero, edged the board into place and held it still as Kourtney Jenkins, 17, used a cordless nail driver to drill the siding into place.
"It looks better than it did at first," said Jenkins afterward, as he surveyed the structure taking shape before his eyes. "Work still needs to be done. But it's going to look real nice."
For Jenkins and his classmates, the job of repairing the dilapidated storage shed on Cuillier's campus isn't merely a classroom assignment. It's part of a paid internship, created by the Jefferson Parish public school system, that gives students hands-on carpentry, maintenance and landscaping experience and provides them with an hourly, minimum wage and a weekly paycheck.
Currently, about 40 students are involved in the program, working three days a week, said Rita Foster, Cuillier's principal.
Early jobs have included a landscaping gig at the former Ruppel Academy campus in Marrero and the shed renovation at Cuillier. Eventually, the program will span the district, including repair and maintenance work at public schools across the parish, officials said.
"It really is training students how to go to work: what are the safety rules, how to be on time," said schools spokeswoman Beth Branley. "It's not only given them skills but real-world experience."
Such internships can be crucial in the construction industry, which requires workers to think on their feet and become comfortable with power tools, blueprints and less-than-perfect weather conditions, according to Dwayne Mathis, the carpentry instructor at Cuillier.
"Most of them have worked in fast-food restaurants, in controlled environments. But construction is totally different," Mathis said. "There are a lot more variables."
The program, originally conceived by Superintendent Diane Roussel, started with Cuillier's horticulture students, who landscaped the flower beds at the former Ruppel campus last year, using a mix of palm trees and rose bushes purchased by the district.
"It was gorgeous," said horticulture instructor Gwen Nelms, who estimated the landscaping work would have cost the district about $10,000 to contract out. "Everyone in the whole parish wanted one."
It was such a success that administrators from other schools started calling Cuillier, asking for landscaping help. Sensing an opportunity, officials decided to expand the program beyond horticulture and this year offered the extra payment incentive for students, financed through the general fund.
While Cuillier easily provides internships in other fields such as culinary arts or nursing, construction is a tougher prospect, due largely to age restrictions and insurance limitations imposed by construction sites, Foster said.
Desmond Houston, 18, was one of the first Cuillier students to benefit from the payment change this month.
"I was happy and surprised," he said, of his reaction upon receiving his check for $70. "I didn't know it would be that much."
Still, some students acknowledged that the experience has proved just as valuable as the money. Andrew Clark, 17, quickly listed about half a dozen skills he's learned through his internship, including hanging wallboard, cutting out windows and using a reciprocating saw. When asked about his future plans, he didn't hesitate.
"Building houses and carpentry," he said, standing next to the Cuillier shed. "Just basically what we're doing right here."
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com