Building the Future in Hammonton High School’s Carpentry Shop


By Kathryn Coulibaly

When you enter Hammonton High School, Rick Cote’s carpentry class is directly across from the main office. Carefully maintained by students who sweep and sanitize after each class, Cote’s classroom is stocked with a variety of tools, materials and supplies, including traditional stationary woodworking tools as well as the latest tools and portable lithium-ion rechargeable drivers, as well as hand tools from the early 60s and 70s.

Today, students work to build their own toolboxes, at their own pace, with their own modifications.

“Students taking this course have a variety of skill levels, language abilities and comfort in building things with their hands,” Cote said. “This course helps them build skills and gives them a break during the day where they can focus on building something, which can boost their self-esteem.”

Côté showed the students the basics of building their toolboxes and then, under his careful supervision, left the rest to them. Some students chose to varnish the wood; others left it with just a protective varnish. Some used a torch to burn off the outside of their toolboxes, giving them a weathered look. Others built complex trays to divide materials. Despite using the same materials and the same general plan, each toolbox is as unique as the students who build them.

Woodshop is one of many practical classes at Hammonton High School. The Career and Technical Arts curriculum encompasses a variety of areas, including graphic design, television/media, culinary arts, architecture, jazz band and choir, and woodworking.

These types of lessons engage and challenge students in different ways than other subjects, but they can all work together. Côté collaborates with his woodworking colleagues, Matthew Arena and Gene Luby, as well as teachers from across the program.

Woodworking gives students the opportunity to move and create.

Learn real-world skills

Due to budget cuts and an emphasis on standardized testing, carpentry classes are increasingly disappearing from New Jersey public schools, despite teaching students real-world skills that can be applied. in their lives, whatever career path they choose.

At Hammonton High School, carpentry courses are elective and popular with a wide range of students. Some of the students have parents who work in the trades – electrical, plumbing, HVAC, carpentry, etc.

One student, Angelina, said she was interested in taking the course because she saw her house being built and she wanted to learn how to make things.

Many students are children of migrant workers. Language skills may vary in the classroom, but students help and encourage each other.

“One student had very limited English, but he turned out to be an amazing sculptor,” Cote said. “The other students make requests. He sculpted many different animals, from ducks and eagles to insects, sharks and penguins.

Some students develop their own independent study programs. They develop a project, establish the specifications and work with Cote to learn how to use the tools they will need to complete the project.

“We show the students how to use the different tools, and then we’re always there to help them if they get stuck,” Côté said.

The little house project

Carpentry teachers from Hammonton, Cote, Arena, and Luby, also teach other courses on design, career preparation, and more. The three of them recently completed a multi-year construction project to build a tiny house.

They worked with other teachers to complete the vision of now-retired Hammonton carpentry teacher James Ziegler, who started the tiny house building project in 2017. Ziegler wanted to inspire students with an ambitious project that would showcase many of the life skills that he and his colleagues were striving to instill in them.

In the four years it took to complete the project, more than 500 students and staff worked on the tiny house. The finished product is beautiful: wood frame, gray laminate flooring, walnut interior walls, kitchen, bathroom with washer/dryer connection, mezzanine bedroom, living room area with sliding glass door, fiber insulation of glass, heating and air conditioning.

The tiny house in Hammonton went up for auction in September 2021 and the district is hoping for bids of $30,000 or more. The funds will be used to repay a contribution from the Hammonton Education Foundation and launch other innovative projects showcasing these life skills.

Left to right: Carpentry shop teachers Rick Cote, Matthew Arena and Gene Luby stand next to the small house built by the students and staff of Hammonton High School.

A shortage of skilled trades

The opportunity to learn practical skills is shrinking in public schools in New Jersey and across the country. Nationally, between 1990 and 2009, the number of credits earned in CTE high school classrooms fell 14%, according to the Brookings Institution’s 2017 report, “What We Know About Career and Technical Education in high school “.

Even before the pandemic, the United States predicted a shortage of skilled trades. Since the pandemic, demand has exploded. Here are some of the most in-demand jobs:

  • Concrete masons report job growth of 904%.
  • Glaziers are at 422%.
  • House painters are at 329%.
  • Electricians are at 130%.
  • Plumbers are at 129%.
  • Carpenters are at 121%.

In 2015, long before the pandemic,Timemagazine reported a growing gap between the jobs needed and the skills taught in schools.

Vocational and technical education gives students skills they can use personally and professionally.

Côté sees the opportunities for his students and wants to help them act accordingly.

“There are so many industries in this area that are crying out for skilled workers,” Cote said. “They are even willing to train you, as long as you are willing to learn. These are good jobs, often unionized. I want to help my students see the potential in these careers.

Côté takes his role as a teacher very seriously. He cares about his students inside and outside the classroom. In almost every class, he talks to students about their career options after high school. Through its connections in the community, Cote is able to help students find work in a variety of fields upon graduation, from landscaping and electrical to HVAC and construction.

“Woodworking gives students a sense of accomplishment that really helps them grow,” Cote said. “They see a project from start to finish. They make mistakes and learn to ask for help to correct those mistakes, and there is always a solution. Sometimes you just need a little wood glue. They help each other out, too, and a student who might not shine in biology is knocking it out of the park in a carpentry shop. Every student deserves a chance to shine, and that’s what career and technical training can provide.

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of NJEA journal and provides content and support for She can be reached at [email protected]


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