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Straight Up Conversation: Trade School Impresario Sarah Turner

By Rick Hess — May 16, 2019 10 min read
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Sarah Turner is president of North Bennet Street School (NBSS), a 138-year-old trade school serving 150 students each year in Boston. Previously, Sarah served as the dean of Cranbrook Academy of Art, and she previously taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2005, Sarah was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to research Dutch contemporary applied art. I recently spoke with her about the North Bennet Street School and their distinctive approach to training students in traditional trades, like bookbinding and preservation carpentry. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: Sarah, what is North Bennet Street School [NBSS]?

Sarah Turner: We’re America’s very first trade school. Since our founding in 1881, we’ve trained generations of students for careers in traditional trades—such as carpentry, furniture making, jewelry making, violin making, locksmithing, piano technology, bookbinding, and preservation carpentry. Our approach is to foster individual growth and a commitment to excellence, while at the same time, training people for well-paying jobs that are in-demand and impossible to export. We’re proud to be recognized both nationally and internationally for our excellence as a learning institution, and as a leader in craft and traditional trades.

Rick: North Bennet Street School has been around for more than a century. Is it still relevant in 2019?

Sarah: North Bennet Street School was originally founded to enable immigrants to develop productive lives in their new home. Today, the school continues to bridge the gap between opportunity and demand by training the next generation of traditional tradespeople using time-honored methods and skills. The United States is facing a skilled labor shortage: The U.S. Department of Education reports that there will be 68 percent more job openings in trade-related jobs in the next five years than there are people trained to fill them. We’re here to help fill that gap—for the jobs needed, but also for the people training with us—by offering an alternative path to a four-year degree, and helping our students achieve meaningful lives and careers.

Rick: So can you walk me through the curriculum? How do you teach these skills?

Sarah: We have nine full-time programs, including bookbinding, carpentry, cabinet and furniture making, jewelry making and repair, locksmithing and security technology, piano technology (basic and advanced), preservation carpentry, and violin making and repair. We also offer a number of short-term continuing education classes, free public programs like exhibits and lectures, and partnerships with local schools, nonprofits, and cultural institutions. Since its founding, North Bennet Street School has used the Sloyd system of manual training, which seeks to teach the whole person not only how to make a living, but how to live. While we do teach technical skills, of course, this Swedish method focuses on the development of character, intellectual capacity, as well as manual skills. Students complete progressive projects that follow a series of steps, which build manual dexterity and executive functioning skills, such as organization, planning, goal setting, and follow-through. We don’t have typical classes per se, but rather instruction is through observation and projects, usually in the machine room, at a workbench or in the field. Students then practice independently, and with time and guidance by our experienced faculty, come to master their new skill.

Rick: Is there any concern that you’re training students in highly specific skills that might become obsolete?

Sarah: Even in a time of lives lived online we continue to see demand for authentic, locally sourced products is on the rise. And, there are things that still must be done by hand that simply can’t be done by machines or that machines can’t do as detailed or personalized work. This is where we come in, or rather, where we’ve always been. At North Bennet Street School, we don’t romanticize technology any more than we romanticize hand skills. When we can, we try to marry the old and the new. Examples of this are seen in our locksmithing and security technology program, where a new security system might have sophisticated digital credentials like a fob or keypad. However, the lock itself is always mechanical, requiring dexterity, patience, and problem-solving to repair. In our jewelry making and repair program, our instructors are using high tech magnifying video cameras to walk students through laser welding components of fine jewelry. In our preservation carpentry program, our students might use modern technology to help date old paint or wood, and then go on to hand-carve the timbers that ultimately restore a historic home.

Rick: You note that your approach focuses on the “whole person” and “development of character.” How does that fit with the trade school mission and approach?

Sarah: It’s about balance for us. You can think of the Sloyd philosophy I mentioned before as training one’s head, heart, and hands all at once. It’s been shown that hand-skills and cognitive skills develop together. Add to that the self-direction and self-reliance that it takes to work with your hands and it’s a powerful combination for developing confidence, risk-taking, and problem-solving. And, we do this as a community—there’s a true community culture at the School and of course, we’re linked to our communities through where our graduates work. So, this education truly can build the framework for a whole life.

Rick: What can you tell me about student outcomes?

Sarah: At the heart of our mission is educating students for employment, and we take that commitment seriously. The data proves this out too, with high graduation and employment rates for each of our programs. As an example, of the 96 graduating students last year, 82 were employed even before graduation. You’d be hard-pressed to find more successful people in their fields than our graduates. They’re employed at prominent institutions and companies, including Harvard University, Tiffany’s, and Steinway, among many others. They’re also launching their own small businesses, helping to keep craft alive in cities and towns across the U.S.

Rick: These seem like pretty niche occupations. If they’re not hanging out their own shingle, how are students finding and connecting with these jobs?

Sarah: Before our students walk in the door for their first class, we are already thinking about the skills and connections they will need to get a job within their field. Through our student life and career services office, we work with students to shape their elevator speeches, practice interviewing, price their products and services, network, and market themselves for future employment. In addition, we connect them to our network of 3,000 alumni worldwide through a variety of social events, interests, and jobs and commissions boards. We connect many of our students to internships or employment in the summers. And, our faculty members are some of our best connectors to jobs—after all, they’re active professionals with deep relationships in the community.

Rick: What are the demographics of your student body? Are students coming to you straight out of high school?

Sarah: Our current study body ranges in age from 18 to 70, and includes high school graduates, veterans, white- and blue-collar professionals, those who live with disabilities, single parents, individuals from the LGBTQ community, and others representing varying education levels and ethnicities. Though a diverse group, they all share a passion for working with their hands, a curiosity about the world, and the determination to succeed. Veterans in particular have been a long part of the School’s history, and their military experience translates well in our immersive training environment. Today, about one in five students is a veteran, and they represent all branches and ranks of the military.

Rick: Do students generally have relevant experience before they come to you?

Sarah: Some do, but not everyone. And in some cases it’s easier to teach from a blank slate than it is to unlearn bad habits. We do find that some individuals, like the veterans I just mentioned, have a unique disposition or mindset that is helpful, no matter their experience with craft. One such student, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, came to us after five years of service as a mechanical engineer. She will graduate from our cabinet and furniture making program this spring, and her work is truly something to behold, after just two years of training. Her education was made possible by our NBSS Yellow Ribbon Program, which helps to bridge the financial gap beyond regular VA benefits from the post 9/11 GI Bill to fund tuition, tools, and materials. But experience isn’t everything. We also get students who are looking to further their craft or enter the field after getting a taste of the trades in high school. Another example is a young man who found his place among craftsmen while interning for the National Park Service through his high school. In 2016, he started his post-secondary education in carpentry and went on to further his skills in preservation carpentry. His education was fully funded—tuition, books, tools and all—by our own Workforce Development Scholarship.

Rick: Tuition runs about $25,000 annually, depending on the program. That’s obviously not cheap. How do students afford it? Can they use federal financial aid programs like at a four year university?

Sarah: Since 1990, tuition costs at colleges have risen over 300 percent, far outpacing the growth of the economy. Today, the average student debt for a bachelor’s degree is more than $37,000, leading many to ask, “What are the alternatives?” Our programs run from one to three years, and are a fraction of the cost of traditional, four-year colleges. Still, the cost of running the leading school of craft is substantial, that’s true. Thankfully we have donors who’ve helped us to achieve a remarkable level of scholarship aid for our students. Last year, we distributed nearly $600,000 of institutional aid, and by 2022, we plan to increase that award to $1 million in funding annually. We’ve also just frozen tuition at current levels for the next three years. In addition to the Yellow Ribbon and Workforce initiatives I noted a moment ago, North Bennet Street School recently unveiled its newest financial aid program called “Pell Yes!” This new institutional grant—the first of its kind in the country—provides up to $6,000 in aid to nontraditional students who already hold a bachelor’s degree. Two thirds of our students receive some kind of aid, whether from the School itself, or via the federal loans and grants. Federal student aid works just the same at NBSS as at any other school or university, making an education in craftsmanship more accessible than ever. It’s a viable career path for people looking for something different than traditional college.

Rick: The School has been around for 138 years. Looking forward, what changes lie ahead?

Sarah: When I came to North Bennet Street School last year, I was fortunate to inherit an extremely healthy organization, so the future I envision builds on the successes NBSS has already attained. My goals include building new audiences and expanding our community through outreach to students who can benefit from the education we offer; building new partnerships locally, nationally and internationally, engaging our existing and new donors and professional networks; continuing to keep an education at North Bennet Street School affordable; and expanding upon existing and creating new education and public programming. Through all of that, I aim to keep the school’s historic integrity and commitment to excellence intact. North Bennet Street School has always adapted throughout its history and I’m excited to continue to train, engage, and inspire the next generation of skilled trades and craftspeople.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.