Cool Schools: Build UP Focuses on Education and Workforce Development in Urban Areas
We talk with Mark Martin, founder of Build UP, a new private school that aims to get students a diploma, an associate’s degree and a home within six to eight years
In today’s episode of EdChoice Chats, Mike McShane talks with the founder of Build UP, a new school launching in 2019 in Ensley, Alabama. In the podcast, Mark Martin shares his ambitious vision to help his students solve some of their core poverty-related problems. Click to listen to the episode, or read the full transcript below.
Mike McShane: Welcome back to the Cool Schools podcast where we deconstruct and discuss innovative schools from all around the country. Today on the podcast we are going to be talking about Build UP, which is a really interesting new workforce development. A high school associate’s degree combination school that’s starting this fall in Ensley, Alabama which is a sort of sub-city or inner ring suburb of Birmingham.
We’ll be chatting with Mark Martin, who is the main person. He runs the show there. A little bit about Mark. He recently graduated from Harvard’s Doctor of Education Leadership program where he worked with Jobs for the Future and the Alabama State Department of Education on education to career transition, workforce readiness. He previously served as school director at the Langston Hughes Academy, which is a pre-k to eight public charter school that he helped co-found in 2007. He actually started his career in Atlanta at Woodson Elementary, lo those many years ago with Teach for America.
It’s a really fascinating conversation that we have unpacking how this school is working to try and give students a clear path to the middle class with work skills and a quality education. The credentials that they need, both a high school and an associate’s degree. And if it all goes to plan, an actual house, all in six years. I know it’s hard to believe. You’ll get the whole story, so here’s the my conversation with Mark Martin of Build UP.
Mark, where did you get the idea for Build UP?
Mark Martin: I think Build UP was a combination of experiences in my life that led up to it, but it hit me like a ton of bricks in really January of 2017. Had a bit of a holiday break there and some time to think, and each of the components, though, just hit me. It made sense. The further I got into it, this was while I was still earning my doctorate degree, the further I got into it, each of the pieces fit better and better. They kind of supported one another, and it just all made sense.
Mike McShane: I’m glad you phrase it as pieces of components, because I think that’s essential to understanding Build UP is understanding these different components. Could you walk through the different components of the model?
Mark Martin: Sure. Absolutely. The first and foremost I’m an educator. That’s my background. The last 15 years I’ve been in public education, predominantly in urban classrooms serving low-income, high-minority populations. There have just been so many …
I’ll guess I’ll first start with the why behind each component. As an educator working in this pretty lonely silo of K–12 education, our kids come to the classroom with so many needs, resulting from all the different complex social problems that they’re dealing with. Mostly associated with poverty, but crime, sometimes empty stomachs, single parent households, you name it, but the list goes on and on. All of those things our kids come into the classroom with are really difficult with the majority of tools that educators have to tackle and have to leverage against these problems. Those issues are really difficult to tackle with just those tools.
A quality K–12 education I think is first and foremost in tackling poverty, but what I realized along the last 15 years is that it’s just not enough, so we had to reach outside of the sector. Safe, stable, affordable housing is another piece that’s too often lacking in our kids’ home lives. Unfortunately, many solutions out there for this piece always result in continuing low-income folks into rental positions rather than owning a piece of the pie and being homeowners. High-wage, high-demand career skills is another critical piece. Even if you are fortunate enough in this country to become a homeowner, if you lose your job too often you’re faced with the challenge of maintaining a mortgage and putting food on the table, which is extremely difficult if you don’t have income coming in. Having job skills that you can fall back on. That’s another critical piece that we’re hitting.
Even with all of those components, if you don’t have the social capital, and oftentimes even financial capital, to get your foot in the door, to have an automobile that you can hold down a job with, you can’t be successful in this world. So many jobs we know are successful in this world, and so many jobs, we know, are a result of who you know. That’s the social capital piece, having mentors, having industry professionals that you can call upon to get doors open, to get those interviews, to get the job.
We’re addressing all of those four main pieces, but there are a lot of other smaller components such as financial literacy, entrepreneurship skills, even take-home pay for our youth because so many kids too often have to drop out or get distracted from their academics because they have to earn some money, whether it’s working in McDonald’s or oftentimes worse, doing something that maybe is illegal to earn money to either put food on the table or because they want to have some financial freedom in their lives and they’ve never had that opportunity. We’re addressing a lot of things in this one comprehensive program.
Mike McShane: What is your targeted student population? How are you recruiting them?
Mark Martin: Again, I’ll start with a little bit of the why to tell you some of why we’re addressing students at a much younger age. In this country right now, the average apprenticeship age is 28. That tells me that for 10 years post-high school, if this young adult made it through high school, they’ve kind of been working in the service industry, likely in minimum wage jobs or jobs that are not paying livable wages. Oftentimes it’s things like bar tending or waiting tables, which are fine for a while, but they’re not paying a wage to where you can own a home. They’re also often not regular enough to develop some strong habits for careers.
If you’re a bartender, you’re oftentimes going to bed at two or three in the morning, waking up in the middle of the day. To go from that at 28 to being on a construction site, for example, at 7 am regularly is really difficult. You’re developing a lot of bad habits along the way, not to mention many of the bad habits that you’ve developed up until that point throughout your childhood and growing up in adolescence. We’re starting with 14- and 15-year-olds, predominantly young people who have just finished eighth grade and are entering high school most likely frustrated with school. Not necessarily seeing where it’s all leading if you don’t have role models or people surrounding them who have college educations or high-wage positions because of skills. They may not understand the critical nature of education and why it’s so important to have.
We’re trying to get kids before they drop out. That’s one thing, so that’s why we’re starting with ninth graders. We’re also trying to get young people who have all the tools necessary, but just maybe disengaged more than anything and may be interested in working with their hands some. But one thing that I want to make clear and always stress to our parents and families and community members is we’re not dumbing down anything. We’re actually ramping it up. A lot of the work that our young people are doing both on the vocational side and on the academic side is so much more rigorous than anything I ever tackled in high school, and I went to a really great middle class high school.
Even with that, I was bored out of mind, so I often, for the last two years of high school, I left for two and a half hours a day to go work on my 1983 Camaro at our tech school because it was a much more rigorous, collaborative, engaging education. Even though I knew I was going on to a four year university, I didn’t necessarily know why, and I didn’t know what I was headed for. I was much more passionate at 17-, 18-years old about working on my car.
Mike McShane: I think that that’s an experience that’s shared by so many folks. You talk to people about their high school experiences, how many of them said, “Oh, you know, I just kind of sat through class so that after school I could go and work on the newspaper,” or, “I really loved shop class,” or, “I really loved managing the basketball team or doing statistics for the basketball team” or something? You think, “Wow, those are actually really important skills and good things for kids to know, and we think of them as this kind of secondary piece or things that are nice to have.” Trying to leverage things that kids are actually passionate about into these things, I think is a wonderful, wonderful place to start.
I was perusing your website, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but ideally after six years in your program, students will have a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, and a house? Are all three of those things true?
Mark Martin: They are, but you left out one pretty critical component. A. It’s competency based. That’s not the critical component I’m getting at, but it’s competency based. On average it will take our youths six years to get through. Those who are really, really highly motivated could possibly get done in four years. Those who need a little more time, or are starting well behind the others, which many of our youth are going to be starting well behind even as ninth graders, they may take seven, eight years. The biggest piece is once they’ve had both the high school diploma and the associate’s degree, they then have to be on a set path towards the middle class.
That can come in three different ways. It can come by taking a full-time salaried position with one of our building partners or real estate partners, one of our employers that have agreed to work with our young people, apprentice them, and then offer them positions down the road. That’s one option.
Second one is to take their associate’s degree and then go on to a four year degree. They’ll already have half of their four year diploma taken care of, and they could then transfer to University of Alabama or Harvard. Wherever they want to go, but we know in this country that earning a four year degree and also having credits towards that as you start makes it much more likely that you’ll persist through. That is a great way to enter the middle class.
The third option is to launch their own business. If they’ve gone through our entire program and decided that they want to be an electrician, for example, they’ll come away with their associate’s degree focused on electrical, and they’ll be able to sit for their state licensure and be credentialed. Then they can go ahead and launch their own small business.
Our program will actually be housed in a facility that also has a minority business incubator within it as well. We’ll actually have the supports there to help our young people write a business plan, raise some capital, and start creating jobs for their community. Not only could go to work themselves, but to hopefully create those jobs by launching their own small businesses.
Any of those three steps is kind of what we consider to be the path to the middle class, and that’s the third and most critical step towards that home ownership piece. Once they have the high school diploma, the associate’s degree, and that set path into the middle class, then they take over the deeds to the homes that they rebuild. These are like-new duplexes. They become both home owner and landlord in one fell swoop.
Mike McShane: Talk to me about the home building process. Students will be building these homes? Will they be working with other people to build these homes? Where are the homes coming from for the students to take over the deeds?
Mark Martin: We’re launching in a small part of Birmingham called Ensley. I say small part. At one point in our history it was quite a big part of Birmingham. Ensley’s actually older than the city of Birmingham. It was very early on swallowed up into Birmingham as it blew up. This was all in the very early 20th century. Ensley at one point in a 24-hour period produced more steel than any place in the world. It had about 40,000 residents. About half black, half white. They’re all working class, but at a time when working class meant middle class, homeowners, things like that, because they all had really steady jobs in the steel industry.
As technology passed by and the world flattened a bit, a lot of those steel jobs were left and lost from that community. Ensley now has about five or six thousand, mostly poor, mostly black, residents. Those who couldn’t get out were left. As you can imagine going from 40,000 residents to 5,000, there are an awful lot of blighted, abandoned homes in this community.
Birmingham, like many cities, has a mechanism that if houses are abandoned, if somebody’s no longer paying taxes on them, they have something called the Birmingham Land Bank Authority that can absorb those houses and take it under their control. Then through a quiet title process, they can work with lawyers to clear the title and put it in the names of someone else.
Build UP will be taking these homes that are in every way a negative on public dollars: the city’s having to maintain the yards, the city has to, once they fall into complete disrepair, has to raze the home and clear the lots. They have to monitor them and patrol them for squatters. They become drug houses. Also, a lot of these homes in Ensley are catching fire. That’s a huge issue. These are all negatives and drags on public resources.
We’re going to take these homes from the city, work with our youth and industry professionals who are apprenticing our kids through this process, teaching them all aspects of construction, and rebuild these homes that have been more or less abandoned for the last at least five years into like-new duplexes.
We’re going to put them into producing positive revenues for the city and also creating both a home and, in some senses, a small business through this asset income of being a landlord for our youth.
Mike McShane: Word you use a lot is partners. It seems like that is integral to what you all are trying to do. You have to work with all these partners. Could you maybe talk about how you’ve created this network of partners? How you’ve leveraged them? How you’ve worked with them? How you’ve convinced them to be part of this? It sounds like such an interesting and innovative way to solve this really unique problem, but one you can’t do on your own. How did you recruit these partners? How do you work with them? How do you leverage them?
Mark Martin: One of the first things we realized when we kind of discovered what problem we’re actually tackling, which is poverty and very closely related, urban blight, these problems are so massive and complex that there was no way that any educational institution, any group of teachers, any individual sector even could tackle it. It had to be through partnership. That partnership even had to be really broad as well to support the young people and the community and our families as they do this work.
Throughout the whole thing, though, what I’ve realized is that the partnerships have to be mutually beneficial. We talked a little bit just a moment about what we’re providing for the city. The city is providing us for some blank canvases of homes, more or less. Hopefully they have strong bone that we can build from. They’re providing us with that, but, like I said, we are returning them homes that are going to bring dollars into the city rather than continually cost them.
For our building partners, a lot of them are struggling to get young, talented, driven, motivated individuals into their field. A lot of the Baby Boomers that are currently running construction companies are retiring off, and so they need an influx of talent, but they also need an influx of diverse talent. We’re going to be helping them to get more females into the field and also to get more people of color into construction, which is really a component of construction that’s lacking in their human capital.
In every case, we want to go to our partners and say, “This is what we have to offer you, and this is what we can really use support on.”
Because we have so many different components: financial literacy, the financing pieces of the housing, we go to financial institutions and community development funds and things like that. Obviously there’s a big need early on for the philanthropic community to help us get this thing off the ground as well, but in each case, we feel like and hope to be providing quite a bit more. We’re not just going with our hands out.
We’re saying, “Listen, let’s collaboratively solve this issue that is a major issue for the city of Birmingham and really for communities all across the country.” The only way to solve this is through collaboration, through partnership.
We have a place for just about anybody to come and insert themselves and help us to accomplish this, because we’ve known from the beginning we can’t do it alone.
Mike McShane: Was this a tough sell to the philanthropic community? It sounds great, but it’s different, and I know that sometimes there is reticence to support new and different things. Was it difficult? Did folks jump at the opportunity? How did that work?
Mark Martin: We’re still figuring that out to be honest. I has not been a tough sell in that every single conversation I’ve had, literally every single conversation I’ve had, and I’ve presented build UP to over 700 people in and through Birmingham and large groups and in small groups and one on one even, everybody kind of nods their heads saying, “Yes, it makes sense. Yes, that sounds like it could work.” Then they kind of say, “Well, who else is doing this?” I say, “Well, we’ll be the first. Nobody else is doing this.”
Obviously each of these components have been done by different people. The program has been highly influenced by groups like Youth Build and Uncommon Construction, Habitat for Humanity has been getting low-income folks into homes and homeownership positions for a long time. Cristo Rey was an influence in this kind of earn and learn component.
We’re doing all of those things together, and we’re doing them all on steroids. Nobody’s ever pulled this off before. Our biggest influence is the Swiss and German dual ed system where apprenticeship is just a critical piece of a young person’s maturation and learning process. As they hit high school, they leave what we think of as compulsory education, and 70% at least of youth in Switzerland go into the workforce and apprenticeships.
Nobody in this country has ever tackled poverty in this way, and we’ll be the first and only school in the country doing this next year. Yes, there has been a lot of reticence. I think our funders are … They don’t want to be the first to dive in, and they don’t want to be the first to commit a big chunk of change on something that to this point is unproven.
All the pieces make sense. It seems to support itself. The homes we’re working on are all within a short distance of the school. We only take students from within a small distance of the school as well because we’re kind of an anti-gentrification program as well. We believe that folks from within the community can solve their own problems if given the right supports. That, for example, eliminates the need for transportation, which is a huge cost.
The school I ran in New Orleans had over a $600,000 a year transportation budget, which we would much rather put towards curriculum and high-quality teaching and academic programming. That sort of thing.
The program seems to make sense. It solves a lot of its own issues, but it’s never been done before. For me, that means I should tackle it. For a lot of people, never been done before often is taken as, “Well, it can’t be done.”
Mike McShane: Sure. Are you hoping to ramp up? This fall, how many students are you hoping to serve, and sort of at your fully articulated vision of this school, how many students are hoping to serve?
Mark Martin: At each individual site, and we’re launching just one site to start, we take 20 students per year. That’s because of the huge need for housing … I should say the huge input need that it takes to turn around these houses. Over six years, 20 houses is a lot because we’re starting with youths who, in some cases, never held a hammer before, and we’re teaching them all aspects of construction. Plus giving them the high school diploma and the associate’s degree. I say giving them, they’re earning it, which is typically a six year process in and of itself. We have limited capacity of only 20 youths per year. But over the six year program, each site will grow to approximately 120 youths. That would be a fully built out site.
Now, if two miles away there’s another community in need, we hope to launch another site there. We’re always launching it within the community and taking young people from that community. We hope to ramp up very quickly though. If we can prove this model in Ensley, which is one of the most depressed communities in one of the most, in many cases, inequitable cities, in one of the most highly impoverished states in our country, if we can be successful in Ensley, then we know that in places like New Orleans and Atlanta where property values are much different once you get the homes up and going, in that scenario would make finances a lot easier in some other cities, we know that we can be successful there as well.
I was shocked being in Boston and speaking with some folks from Youth Build and finding out that the City of Boston even has 12,000 abandoned properties. Some are just lots, but some are blighted homes under their control. Youth Build is one of their best partners and the most ideal type partner because they’re lifting up youth and getting the homes back into the hands of people in need. Youth Build is really only knocking out two or three homes a year, and the City of Boston has 12,000. Even in cities with home values as out of control as Boston, there’s still a big need for a program like this.
Mike McShane: Could you talk for a brief bit about the earn and learn model. Maybe some folks are familiar with Cristo Rey, whose students attend classes, I think in most of them four days a week, and then for a fifth day of the week they work. That helps defray the cost of their education. Will the work that students do be able to completely defray the cost of their education? Are they going to have to pay tuition, to rely a lot on fundraising to meet that gap? How will earn and learn work in practice?
Mark Martin: That’s a great question. One, I think it has to be noted that apprenticeships, internships, these kind of introductions to the world of work, the way that they’re set up in our country are critical for young people to make that leap. Too often, young people go straight from high school, and it’s often children coming from places privileged, but will go from high school to a four year university. Then, at the age of 22 or 23, they’re getting the first taste of work, and it’s a full-time position. They’re completely overwhelmed because they’ve never dabbled in work before. They’ve never learned the hard way what happens when you don’t show up for work on time, or you don’t plan adequately, or you don’t respond to a superior in the correct way. Work is critical.
Getting an introduction to it before the stakes are so high, before you have kids and a mortgage and all these responsibilities that are dependent on the work, I think is also a very important factor.
That said, too often internships in the way that companies in this country at least introduce young people to the world of work is through unpaid options. That’s a privilege that too many folks cannot afford to do, especially when you have to get to and from that place of employment or place of internship. Transportation’s an issue. There are all kinds of reasons that many folks in our country just cannot afford unpaid work, but especially when we’re talking about African Americans, I think the days of any kind of unpaid employment need to be long gone. For us, it’s not just defraying the cost of tuition, but our young people in our program are actually going to earn take-home pay as well.
I’ll break down some of the numbers for you. Our tuition is more or less, and this is the cost per student in expenses, is more or less $25,000 per pupil, which is really, really high for any person coming out of poverty, especially. Every aspect of our program allows for any child, regardless of socioeconomic status, to afford it.
Number one, and this is a huge advantage of being in Alabama, there’s a $10,000 tax-credit scholarship. If you’re a low-income young person zoned for what the state of Alabama deems to be a failing school, which will be the case in our situation, and I think 90% of the high schools in Birmingham are on this failed schools list, which is the bottom 6% of schools in the state, then you can leave the traditional public system and take a tax-credit scholarship and take that money and put towards private school tuition.
We’ll be launching as a private school. Down the road we may end up being a charter or a traditional public school. A school within a school. I’m pretty agnostic about that, but in Alabama for now for us to get launched as quickly as possible we’re going this route. So $10,000 of that 25 can be covered by public funds which individuals or companies contribute via tax-credit scholarship.
Additionally our young people will earn on average somewhere around $20,000 a year in wages. I say wages. It’s all part of a stipend-based program. They get paid for being in this program. Half of which comes back to the school though to pay a portion of the tuition. The other half goes to their pocket. If we were to break it down in an hourly wage, it would be somewhere around $15 an hour. Half of which comes back to the school, and then $7.50, still above minimum wage, goes back to our young people. So they can really start to see the fruit of their labor.
I think the Cristo Rey model is brilliant and has figured out a lot of ways to open the door not only to getting exposure to the world of work but also to help low-income youth afford a quality private school education, but at the same time I think it’s even more critical that youths begin to see the fruits of their labor. When you put in a hard day’s work, you get something to show for it in your pocket. The other piece to that is that’s going to be our motivator more than anything else.
If you enter our program at 14 or 15, you’re not thinking about home ownership. We’ll start young people down that path, but a six-year program is a really big commitment for anyone, especially a 14, 15 year old who doesn’t know who they want to be or what they want to be when they grow up. For us, being able to have that little lever at the end of each month of stipend check that’s coming to them so that they can learn to save, learn to set up investments, and go buy whatever shoes they want or take their girlfriend out on a date, that’s really valuable. That’s the lever that we really with torque on in the short term and in the near term to keep young people engaged. Get them to work even harder in the classroom so that they can spend more time out in their apprenticeships earning wages and rebuilding their community.
Mike McShane: Now the high school diploma side, the associate’s degree side, the actual classroom, is that going to be a kind of traditional classroom instruction? Is that some mix of online or blended learning? For the associate’s degree, are you going to be accredited by the state to give associate’s degrees? Do you have to do that in partnership? I’m just kind of wondering the intersection with these existing systems that we have.
Mark Martin: Yes. I think it’ll look different in different sites. As we begin to expand rapidly, we’ll have to change this up some so that we’re not having to recreate the wheel in every single community. For the associate’s degree part, I’ll start with that because it’s the easiest.
We are partnering with a local community college. In our case, it’s Lawson State Community College. It’s part of the Alabama Community College System, and they have a construction program already. They have a lot of options that align well with what we want our youth learning. They have great dual enrollment options. A majority of the classes that our youth will be taking will be counting as double, because we do have to be more efficient in how our youth are learning and earning credits. Through the dual enrollment programs, they’ll not only be earning the high school credits, and we will be an accredited high school, so the high school diploma will be accredited, but they’ll also be earning credits to put towards their associate’s degree.
On the academic component side that we’ll be doing in house, it’s going to be a combination of things. It won’t look or feel or operate like any high school you’ve probably ever been in. It’s going to be our academic space on the ground floor for instance will have a 4,000 square foot workshop so our young people are learning geometry with two by fours framing out a wall. Then that afternoon they’ll go and put that learning directly into application rebuilding a wall in one of these blighted, abandoned homes in the community. It’s creating this relevance that too often is lacking, especially in high school curricula.
The delivery model, we say, will be from teachers, tutors, peers, and computers. That’s learning from everything and everyone. Both industry experts and also academic advisors, teachers, tutors, college students. You name it. We’re going to have a lot of different components. Each individual student will have a personalized learning plan, and so wherever they come to us as a starting point, we know that the high that we’ll be essentially drawing from on average their ninth graders start on a fourth or fifth grade reading level and even lower in math, but again that’s an average.
Over the 20 students, each and every one of them is going to be at a different place. We’re not going to have any teacher stand and deliver a ninth grade ELA lesson. A, it’d be too hard to access for students that are on a fourth or fifth grade average. B, it’s never going to be a just right fit. All the differentiation in the world is not going to make for an excellent lesson.
By personalizing it and creating kind of on-level instruction for each student … If you’re familiar with RTI, response to intervention, RTI tier two and tier three is what our entire academic program is going to resemble. Data driven, lots of small group instruction of coupling kids that are on the same levels to really hit their needs exactly where they are and move them forward from there. Also creating lots of different methods and different lesson options. They may have two or three different online components that could teach them three-digit multiplication if that’s what we’re working on or whatever the case may be. Then they’ll also have a teacher that can help them get over the hump if they’re getting stuck.
I think the peer learning component is going to be big as well, both on the vocational side and on the academic side. As young people begin to help one another, it really builds a sense of community, and that’s one of the things we’re doing as well is … When this program, when our first group of 20 youth, are released on the world, a, they’re going to have a lot of experience under their belt both on the career side but also in just being next to one another and sweating together and rebuilding their community together, and that’s the big change agent here is these 20 youths are going to end up taking over 40 units within a four or five block area of Ensley. They are going to then collaboratively, over time, bring stability, security to that community and launch small businesses and create jobs and help then invite other outside investment.
The biggest piece of this is that we have to get folks from within the community into ownership positions first before the outside investment comes, because that’s what we’ve seen in too many communities is outside investors come in and say, “We’re going to solve your problems,” which I think is a bit of a slap in the face and an undignified way to lead community revitalization. It often drives out the people who have been the heart and soul of that community for years and years.
Mike McShane: For sure. Well, I tell you, we could keep talking about this all day. I love ending on your really wonderful vision for the future of Ensley and for your school. We’re going to have to have you back on here in a year or two and see how everything is going, but Mark Martin of Build UP. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today.
Mark Martin: Thanks so much for your time. Please check us out at www dot … I don’t think you even have to say that www anymore. Buildup.work. Buildup dot W-O-R-K. Please check us out.
Mike McShane: Thank you. Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. We had a lot of ground to cover, because I told Mark, this could be two, three, four podcasts. We hope to have him back in the future. Wish him all of the success. I really do think that if he is able to create this model and it works the way he hopes that it does, it really has the possibility of being a seismic shift in thinking about workforce development, thinking about career and technical education, and honestly to think about kind of urban revitalization. Really fascinating model. Lots to chew on there.
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