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Eureka school project produces twin tiny homes

by ALEX SAKARIASSEN Montana Free Press
| June 13, 2023 7:00 AM

Over the past school year, students from Eureka High School have spent several hours each day inside a workshop north of town. They’ve driven nails, hung windows, put up sheetrock, sanded, primed and painted. With each step, raw materials partly purchased with federal COVID-19 relief funds have taken on the shape of two identical tiny homes: gray with single-sash windows and black trim, each fully wired and plumbed.

The project has brought to fruition an idea that’s been cooking in the mind of Eureka’s school superintendent, Joel Graves, for several years. And next month, when both tiny homes go on the auction block, Graves intends for those proceeds to help fund a second year of his district’s newest trades-based instructional endeavor. He sees the two tiny homes now nearing completion as merely the first in a series of investments in expanding the district’s building trades education.

“My hope is that we eventually will build one of these shops on our campus,” Graves told Montana Free Press, referencing an infrastructure bond the district plans to put to voters this fall. “Right now, part of the reason I can only do two classes is because I have to bus kids out to the site and then bring them back and switch them in the middle of the day. So if we were on campus, I could probably do three two-hour classes instead of two three-hour classes.”

The Montana Office of Public Instruction recently highlighted Eureka’s tiny house project as one of the myriad ways in which public schools across the state have put $593 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to use in recent years. Graves estimated the project’s cut of those funds at around $130,000, money that went toward building supplies, monthly rent for the shop and a $70,000 passenger van to shuttle small groups of students to the work site.

But the effort speaks to more than just the wide-ranging impacts of a pandemic stimulus package. Public school advocates, state lawmakers and Gov. Greg Gianforte have all emphasized the importance of career and technical education in recent years. The 2023 Legislature passed a handful of measures to bolster support for programs that give K-12 students hands-on experience in a variety of trades, positioning them for continued studies at two-year campuses or to enter the workforce right after graduation.

Eureka’s project falls squarely in line with this broader statewide initiative and gave the 14 students involved an opportunity that building trades instructor Brian Yarus said they wouldn’t have received otherwise. Some students with family ties to the local building industry were already familiar with certain aspects of construction, he said, while others faced a “steeper” learning curve. He recalled one student who was anxious handling a nail gun at first but took to the job quickly, and added that several parents told him their kids would likely have dropped out of school had the project not given them a more tactile way to engage with their education.

“That’s nice that they got a lot out of it and it’s kept them in school,” Yarus said. “That’s huge to get them to finish and graduate.”

Yarus joined the district full-time last fall to head the project, but he hasn’t been alone in showing students the ins and outs of building a tiny home from scratch. Graves said that builders, plumbers and electricians from a host of local businesses offered their services at no cost, demonstrating their respective trades for the classes and stepping in to complete the more technical work that students alone weren’t trained enough to tackle.

In the coming weeks, Carson Byers will join that list of tradesmen-turned-instructors. As the owner of Eureka-based Little Creek Granite and Stone Works, he volunteered to take the lead on measuring, cutting and installing the granite countertops for both the tiny homes. Byers told MTFP that the students will be part of the full process, from loading the granite slab onto the cutting table to programming the template and, if time allows, hand-polishing the final product. If just one student out of the bunch develops an interest in the work, Byers said, he’ll count it as “a win for everyone,” especially given the growing workforce needs in the local community.

“It’s definitely hard to find good help,” said Byers, observing that Eureka’s semi-retired population has grown in recent years while its population of younger workers continues to shrink. “That’s kind of what my intention was, is to maybe, hopefully, get one [student] interested hook, line and sinker. We’re extremely busy.”

If Byers sees the project as a component in answering the community’s labor needs, Sandi Hall sees it as helping to alleviate another local issue: affordable housing. Hall is a broker and co-owner at National Parks Realty and fielded a call from Eureka High School this spring to bring her expertise to bear. She took a look at the tiny homes, did some market research and is now assisting Graves in arranging next month’s auction. For Hall, the project adds two new dwellings to an area where rising real estate prices have shut out many first-time homebuyers.

“We have such a low inventory that that’s also kept prices up,” Hall said. “I’m very excited for this option, whether it be for new teachers or for young families or for retirees or whoever. It’s a whole plethora of different boxes of people who just want to simplify.”

Graves too sees the project as an answer to the local housing challenge. But his vision is more focused, and more long-term, inspired by recognition that Montana’s continued struggles with starting teacher pay translate to a hard road for new teachers in his district to put a roof over their heads.

“We’re going to try to sell a few of these houses to make some money,” Graves said. “But eventually, I’d like to build some for our own teacher housing, so when a new teacher comes to town we can have some affordable housing that’s nice for them.”