By Jenny Wisniewski
During the Pre-Apprenticeship Readiness Program that he created and taught at Brown Deer High School, Wauwatosa resident Craig Griffie guided students in the construction of a functioning half–bathroom inside their classroom.
They began with brick laying, moved on to framing the floors and walls, worked on HVAC, electrical and plumbing. By the time they were finished, they could turn on the water and flush the toilet.
Griffie didn’t consider himself the most knowledgeable one in the room – and he didn’t mind that at all. In fact, it was by design that he stepped aside so that those with experience in the field could step in. Griffie had built partnerships with professionals over the span of several years, and it was these individuals with industry background who came into the classroom to teach students the skills necessary to get the job done.
But Griffie didn’t stop there. He somehow convinced second-semester high school seniors to come into his classroom 45 minutes before the start of each school day to practice skills and continue learning.
For this, the students received neither school credit nor a grade. However, they did receive something consequential – a pre-apprenticeship certification, all but guaranteeing them an opportunity for an apprenticeship in one of the building trades following graduation.
Griffie gained recognition for the program, the only one in the state to be certified by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. He also took pride in the network of relationships he had developed and the bonds with students that he had nurtured.
Still, ten days before the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, Griffie resigned his job in Brown Deer and signed on with the Wauwatosa School District.
Griffie’s Skill Set Complements District’s Vision
Today Griffie’s classroom is the newly renovated shop at Wauwatosa East High School, a space that Griffie calls “a blank canvas.” The open-concept shop moved to the north side of the building, its square footage over twice that of the previous shop.
Through a row of windows, natural light streams in, a change from the cavernous spaces in which tech ed classes typically exist. The equipment has been updated, too. Tools like table saws and a drum sander have been added to the lab, with help from grants received through Fast Forward and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
Clearly, some strategic planning was behind this new space. “A shop space like this doesn’t just happen,” Griffie said.
Three years prior to Griffie’s arrival at Tosa East, Superintendent Phil Ertl hired Innovation Specialist Tina Koch, one of her tasks being to bring 21st century changes to the high school experience.
The result is LAUNCH, a program that allows juniors and seniors to explore various strands, or career areas, in hubs within the Wauwatosa high schools and partner schools in the Elmbrook School District as well as one off-site location in a professional setting. Students travel to the different hubs during the school day for classes, skill sessions, mentor meetings and presentations from guest speakers. They receive three high school credits upon completion.
The program emphasizes real-world, project-based learning in ways that utilize the skills of regional businesses and thereby create a future pipeline of talent for these same organizations.
“Students are beginning to learn about the organizations in the region, and they are realizing the opportunities that exist within these organizations,” Koch said. “Partners are beginning to see the value of building that pipeline.”
However, Koch makes clear that the program is about more than dabbling – it is about skill building in a team setting. The foundation of the program is built on skills that industry leaders agree are essential in the workplace. Teachers and professionals are advised on embedding the development of these skills into the program.
Currently, Wauwatosa East offers a strand in hospitality innovation, using the kitchens that the school district upgraded a few years ago. Students from both Wauwatosa high schools and the two Elmbrook high schools take International Cuisine and Advanced Marketing classes and participate in work-based mentorships.
On the other side of town, at Wauwatosa West High School, students can delve into the Advanced Manufacturing and Design Strand at West’s new Center of Design and Innovation.
Also an open-concept space, this center includes industry-level equipment such as a laser engraver. The center is behind glass and intentionally placed next to the art studios with the hope that students will observe the work going on and make the connections between engineering, manufacturing and design. Students exploring this strand take the Future Makers Capstone and AP Computer Science Principles classes in addition to participating in work-based mentorships.
Other strands available to Wauwatosa students include global business, business analytics, future teachers, information technology, engineering foundations, media solutions, biomedical solutions, and medicine and healthcare. All are offered at Brookfield East and Central High Schools.
In the future, the building trades will be a second strand offered at Wauwatosa East. Griffie hopes to embed the Pre-Apprenticeship Readiness Program that he designed at Brown Deer High School within the framework of the LAUNCH program.
It Takes a Village
Just as the Wauwatosa School district was ready for an innovator like Craig Griffie to walk through its corridors, Griffie was ready for the challenges that the Wauwatosa School District offered. While the LAUNCH program is a good fit for him, the turbulent events of 2020 also factored into his decision to make the switch.
“Being home during COVID and then George Floyd, and the unrest in the neighborhood…How can I be involved? How can I be a part of the solution?” Griffie wondered. The idea of working with kids in his own neighborhood and being a formative presence in the schools that his kids will attend appealed to him.
“As a teacher you get to have side conversations. I don’t just talk about construction and woodworking all day. I believe in racial justice and social equity. There are just so many questions that are swirling around in our community here locally that to be able to be in a position to be a part of that conversation was exciting, let alone advocating for the building trades in my own community.”
Though Griffie has transferred school districts, the students at Brown Deer High School are never far from his mind. They also exemplify good things to come at Tosa East.
Jaden Johnson is one of those students. Johnson squeezed into an opening in Griffie’s Brown Deer High School program as a sophomore after a conversation with his Mom led him to seek the exploration of building trades as an alternative to college. Now a senior, he is working as a youth apprentice at Harley Davidson in the tool and die shop.
“I love going to work,” Johnson said. Working with his hands and learning new things in an industry that is constantly changing is exciting to him.
Johnson looks forward to entering an apprenticeship program following his graduation.
Griffie continues to advise Johnson, the two of them even working together over the summer to create videos for at-home kits Griffie developed for Wisconsin technical education teachers to use during COVID.
The videos were shot at the Milwaukee Electric Tool training facility over the summer. The corporation even donated the video editing services. The networking that Griffie does at places like Milwaukee Electric Tool is one of his greatest strengths, Johnson said.
Before Tosa East and Brown Deer High Schools, Griffie worked for Appalachia Service Project, a nonprofit organization that brings together volunteers to repair homes in underserved communities. Griffie’s job was multifaceted and involved community outreach – securing places for the volunteers to sleep, creating a food program, working with local nonprofits. “It required a complete commitment to community involvement. And that’s what I bring back to teaching,” Griffie said.
“This will only work well when the entire industry is involved… We have to all work together in order to make sure that our students have all of the options available for them. At Brown Deer we were able to do a lot of that. I believe we were the best high school in the state and maybe in the Midwest in doing that. I am excited to take another swing at it.”