Becoming an EDUcation member of the Woodwork Career Alliance has brought a renewed sense
of purpose to the woodworking program at Westosha Central High School.

A little more than a decade ago, high school woodworking instructor Bert Christensen felt he needed a reality check.

“Around 2005 I started to feel like things were moving past me and I began to wonder what a woodworking teacher should be teaching and where to look for answers,” said Christensen, who heads up the woodworking and construction programs at Westosha Central High School in Paddock Lake, WI.

Christensen began his search by reaching out to the woodworking program directors of Madison Area Technical College in Madison and Fox Valley Technical College in Oshkosh, WI.  Those connections in turn led him to join WoodLINKS USA, which has since been absorbed into the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America (WCA).

Westosha Central High School formally joined the WCA as an EDUcation institution in 2011. Soon after, Christensen was among the first woodworking instructors to become a WCA accredited skills evaluator (ASE). Being an ASE empowers him to certify that a student has achieved specific woodworking skills for which they earn credits toward their Sawblade certificate, the first rung of the WCA’s credentialing program.

Getting involved with the WCA has helped guide the development of a more relevant curriculum for the school’s four-year woodshop program, Christensen said.

“Being a part of the WCA has brought much more credibility to our woodworking program because it was developed by industry professionals,” Christensen said. “We’re basing our curriculum around the WCA Woodworking Skill Standards. They give me absolute confidence that I am teaching kids the right things in the right progression. In the first level a student learns how to safely push a board through a saw. In higher levels they set up and operate other machines.”

Adopting the WCA credentialing process has brought more structure and purpose to the program, Christensen said. “Earning a Sawblade certificate gives the kids who advance through the program something to aim for and lets parents know that we are doing something that is recognized by the industry.

About the Westosha High Woodshop Program
About 85 of the 1,100 students enrolled at Westosha Central High School are participating in one of the four year-long woodworking courses ranging from Woods One – Introduction through Woods Four -” Advanced. Eleven of the students are enrolled in Woods 3. In addition to working on their Sawblade certificates, they qualify to earn two college credits through a partnership with Madison College.

“Most of the kids in our program get involved because they want to learn woodworking as a hobby,” Christensen said. “But some begin to see the potential of a woodworking career after they take a field trip to Madison College’s well-equipped cabinet shop.”

The Westosha High woodworking shop is about 3,000 square feet; a separate lumber storage area and a classroom are attached to the shop. Key equipment includes a SawStop table saw, a pair of Delta table saws, a Delta shaper and a Routakit CNC router. “It was a bit of work to put the router together, but we saved about $5,000, which is a huge deal considering our yearly budget,” Christensen said. “We’re fortunate that we do a get a reasonable chunk of money from Perkins funding to support our program.”

Student projects range from skateboards to 6-foot tall by 8-foot-wide entertainment centers. “Some of our students make things for the community. For example, we made a sound system cart for a local grade school’s theater program. They got a $2,000 cart in exchange for providing $300 in materials,” Christensen said.

Students who enroll in Woods 3 are given a lot of leeway to “build what they want,” Christensen said. “In Woods 2 I throw a lot of stuff at them like making a cabinet with a drawer and two raised panel doors assembled with dadoes, rabbets and screw pockets and using European hinges and ball bearing drawer slides. For my Woods 3 kids I’m more there for guidance and advice than anything.”

Using Video as a Skills Evaluation Tool Because Christensen teaches five woodworking classes a day, there just isn’t enough time to physically evaluate every skills demonstration of each student working toward his WCA Sawblade certificate. “I’ve already been using online platforms where the students can go to find course paperwork and resources so it wasn’t much of a stretch to have the kids shoot videos of their demonstration of an operation.”

Christensen said he makes it clear to students about the level of quality and attention to detail the video must contain so that he can critique their skills. “They edit and upload the videos to Youtube so that I can watch them whenever I have time. If necessary I can watch the video with a student and point out where something is wrong or could be improved. It’s worked out really well.”

Award-Winning Program
The value of the woodworking program and other career and technical education programs offered at Westosha Central High School have not gone unheralded. Last spring, Christensen and his fellow instructors at the school received the 2017 Outstanding High School Technology Education Program Award from the Wisconsin Technology Education Association.

Christensen said he is thankful for the support of the school board, administration and community for supporting career and technical education at Westosha High. He is well aware that many high school woodworking programs across the country have closed down in the last couple of decades.

“I think all concerned recognize that even if a student is not going to become a woodworker, that there is a lot that they learn from using their brains and hands to make something. Those kinds of skills are universally applicable to a lot of career opportunities.”

While the Westosha High woodworking program is relatively healthy, Christensen is always looking for ways to attract more students into the program. This fall he introduced a new course titled Women and Woodworking. Only four students signed up this fall, but it’s a starting point to build on in future years.