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Bronx Students Construct Model House with Working Intercom, Lights and TV

By Patrick Wall | April 20, 2012 11:43am
Phil Gazard, a longtime Gompers teacher, helped his class construct the four-room structure visible behind the students.
Phil Gazard, a longtime Gompers teacher, helped his class construct the four-room structure visible behind the students.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

MOTT HAVEN — It was a Wednesday, so the students in Phil Gazard’s eighth-period electrical class knew to stow away their backpacks and get right to work.

Gazard had only one announcement to make: “Yo! Anybody in the house: hard hats!”

So about a dozen students slapped on blue helmets before they stepped inside the four-room, 200-square-foot model house they had built inside the classroom, complete with solar panels, an intercom and flat-screen TV, where they put to the test the lessons of wiring and circuitry that Gazard had taught them.

“They can open up any book and read and not understand,” said Gazard, 53, who has taught for the past 19 years at Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School, which the Education Department decided this year to begin phasing out.

“But if I show them,” he added, “they can do it.”

Gazard teaches electro-mechanical installation and repair to juniors and seniors during the day; three evenings a week, he offers a similar course through the school’s adult education program.

The model house in February, mid-way through the construction process.
The model house in February, mid-way through the construction process.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

Most of his high school students have learning or other disabilities.

“I say, ‘Forget about special ed,’” Gazard said he tells students. “‘You probably know more about wiring than most of the faculty.’”

Once the students can draw proper electrical diagrams, or schematics, and build functional circuits with outlets, switches, dimmers and bulbs — Gazard maintains a checklist of four-dozen such circuits they must learn to rig — then they are ready for the house.

Beginning in January, the students built the small structure from scratch.

A building materials firm, MarJam Supply Company, donated some sheetrock and screws and the school spent $3,400 on two solar panels, which the students installed outside to add 1200 watts of power to their home. (Gazard “relocated” the high-definition TV, which he said was not being used, from the school cafeteria.)

But the house’s wooden doors, the porcelain toilet and green tub, the ceiling fans, the outlets, the wires, the screws, the power drills — about $3,000 worth of materials — Gazard brought from his home in Yonkers or paid for himself.

“My daughter,” six-year-old Cielo, “came here and said, ‘Dada, that’s my door!” Gazard said, nodding at the pink bathroom door.

The students nailed and sanded the wood. They installed the wiring — and sometimes uninstalled it, following Gazard’s credo that a job isn’t done until it’s done right.

“They’ll probably look at that house and say, ‘That’s just a little house,’” said senior Gustavo Baez, 18. “But we learned a lot from this; our mistakes made us better.”

Gustavo and another senior, Joel Caraballo, both are enrolled in a pre-apprenticeship program called Construction Skills, which leads to a five-year apprenticeship with the city’s electrical workers union, whose members earn $51 an hour, along with benefits and paid college courses for their families, Gazard said.

Gazard, who has worked as a plumber, pipefitter, electrician and machine repairman, has also taught at a school run by the electrical workers union since 1988, and has wielded that connection to land his students — and a few of their parents — union jobs.

A list stapled to a bulletin board in the back of the room names over 100 former students who now do high-paying union work. Next to the list hangs a photocopied note from one of Gazard’s old charges who thanked his former teacher for the “great foundation” he laid.

“Your effort wasn’t in vain,” the student wrote.

Gazard’s current crop of Gompers students will be among his last.

In February, an education panel approved a plan to phase out the 75-year-old school on Southern Boulevard over the next three years and replace it with two smaller schools.

With Gompers gone, Gazard said students will find it harder to follow the path he has tried to chart for them: learn a trade, join a union and consider college later in life, when the costs and demands may be more manageable.

Gazard built his career in the trades with the technical diploma he earned at another South Bronx high school, Alfred E. Smith, and he said that remains the best option for many students, despite the recent push for “college-readiness.”

“People say times have changed,” Gazard said. “Times haven’t changed down here, man.”

Towards the end of class Wednesday, Edwin Martinez, 19, a senior who used to construct towers from Legos and whose godfather is helping erect One World Trade Center, glanced with pride at the model house.

He said, “I think it would be so cool to walk by a building in New York and think, ‘I had a part in building this.’”

After class, Gazard reflected on students like Martinez.

“You build these kids’ confidence up,” he said, “and they fly.”