Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the education system and the economy. Millions of Americans have changed careers in the past two years, many of them switching from everyday office jobs to hands-on careers. Simultaneously, new investments in infrastructure mean that careers in trades like carpentry are increasingly in demand.
Our client, North Bennet Street School (NBSS) in Boston, is well-positioned to help career changers find a new path: The school has been training students for careers in traditional trades for the past 140 years. First Republic spoke with Sarah Turner, President of NBSS, about the school’s educational philosophy, how its community has responded during the pandemic and why its curriculum remains focused on artisanship in an increasingly digital world.
Tell us how NBSS started out, and how it’s grown.
North Bennet Street School was founded in 1881 by Pauline Agassiz Shaw, a philanthropist, social reformer, and leader in the suffrage movement. Boston’s North End is home to many immigrant communities, and Ms. Shaw founded the school to help immigrating families gain skills, connect with a community, and build productive lives.
In the past 140 years, we’ve evolved, but there is still a thread of educating and supporting what we refer to as “the whole person.” We were founded on a social and educational philosophy focused on helping people grow and thrive through manual arts. As a craft and trade school, we teach concrete skills for employment, but students also develop executive functioning skills like sequential learning and progressive problem-solving. We help people build their abilities.
The pandemic has dramatically reshaped the workforce. How has North Bennet supported people going through this economic shift?
There’s been a lot of talk about the Great Resignation. I call it the Great Redirection. People are not dropping out; they’re taking an assessment of what they want, what’s valuable to them, how work culture has changed, and they’re redirecting.
North Bennet has always been a place where people start a new career, for many different reasons. For example, one current student was an airline pilot who was laid off during the pandemic and is now studying to be a piano tuner, and he’s finding similarities between both jobs. Another student is an urban planner who is learning carpentry so she can better understand the built environment.
There’s more alignment now between what we offer and what people are looking for. In 2020, we saw students coming from across the country to go to a hands-on school in a pandemic. They were looking for meaningful work and to be part of a community. We were all looking for that — and this is how some people found it. It was so inspiring. There was this sense of optimism that even in a crisis, positive change was possible.
Continuing to think about careers and the workforce, what makes North Bennet’s craft and trade curriculum unique?
We have nine full-time accredited programs in bookbinding, cabinet and furniture making, carpentry, jewelry making and repair, locksmithing and security technology, piano technology, preservation carpentry, and violin making and repair. Our faculty are experts in their crafts, and we provide a real hands-on experience: Students participate in field work, so when they leave here, they already know how to work on a job-site.
As a necessary part of our accreditation, we maintain high employment rates for our graduates. Each program has an advisory committee of industry professionals, including alumni and future employers. They help us evaluate our curriculum to meet standards for employment and help our students build their professional networks. Fortunately, even though we’re training students for niche industries, their skills are in demand.
We also offer shorter classes in skills like book arts, woodworking and jewelry making. These continuing education classes are a great opportunity to make and maintain connections within the community because they are open to anyone — beginners, people who are considering a career transition, and established professionals. We see a lot of growth in this area in the next few years.
Tell us about North Bennet’s connection to veterans.
Veterans are the classic career changers: transitioning from the military, they are already thinking about what’s next for them. They are very intentional about their work, whether they are group-focused, like in carpentry, or want to work individually, like violin-making.
Fifteen to 20 percent of our students are veterans. Among these are a high proportion of combat veterans, and I have heard from them about the healing aspects of working with their hands and being part of a positive community. So even though it’s not a specific part of our curriculum, there are ways in which healing is found at North Bennet.
How does North Bennet, a nonprofit school, partner with other nonprofits and community-based organizations?
We work with the nonprofit community in a variety of ways. First, we work with nonprofits to recruit students. We partner with places like Safe City Academy and More Than Words, a nonprofit that helps young people develop life and business skills. We’d love to have these young people study with us one day.
We also partner with nonprofits for our students’ field work placements. Our students tune the pianos for the Boston Public Schools and for the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. We have students working in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in the Boston Athenaeum and at the Boston Public Library. These opportunities speak to our community partnerships and extensive network.
Our preservation carpentry program has done field work for institutions such as Historic Boston Incorporated, Urban Farming Institute and the Trust for Public Land. Recently, they seized an exciting opportunity: After Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in 2019, the French government decided to rebuild using 13th-century materials and technology. They put the call out to see if there were artisans who could meet those standards. Our students worked with a nonprofit called Handshouse Studio to build a trial truss, and we are hoping they will be considered as part of a team to work on the reconstruction of Notre Dame.
COVID-19 has had a profound impact on education. How has the school’s programming adapted in response to these changes?
For a while, we’d had an ambition to figure out what role online education could play in craft and trade. So we seized the moment to pilot courses online, the first of which launched in winter 2021. For a 140-year-old school that had never done online education before, piloting virtual classes was a bold move..
Zoom was amazing because we could have guest craftspeople and technicians from all over the world visit with our students. We have such a strong local community, but we are also part of national and international fields, and it was exciting to access that network virtually.
But even when things are digital, there is still a material component to our work. Because we are a hands-on trade school, we could not fully teach in an online environment. By September 2020, we reopened for in-person classes. In the future we might bring in some more high tech tools, like digital fabrication or design, but in the end, we are still working with material objects. It led to a conviction that even though we’re in a high-tech world, artisanship is still essential.
How has your community supported the school through these uncertain times?
It was a challenging time: We had to shrink our student body to safely return in person. As a tuition-dependent institution, that was a real financial shift for us. Because the connection to community is such a part of the ethos of North Bennet, our relationships were strong and we were incredibly supported by them — and grateful!
I also have to thank First Republic Bank. Early in the pandemic, Todd Rassiger (First Republic’s Regional Managing Director, Boston) took my call at home to help me figure out how we were going to stay steady financially when we had that drop in tuition and enrollment.
The philanthropic community, our alumni, our bank — they care about the school, and they rallied around us when we needed it most.
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