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Building women: A project at a time

Instructor Kyle Chalupsky, center, explains the next step in building a garden shed, a project undertaken by the all-girls construction class at Two Harbors High School. Laura Fabini, Kaisa Sundberg, Abigale Seipke, Keely Sundstrom and Breauna Peterson pay close attention. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.1 / 2
Stephanie Evanchik uses a circular saw to cut a board while Breauna Peterson holds it steady. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.2 / 2

On Tuesday morning, almost a dozen pencil- and- ruler-wielding young women were gathered around a pile of lumber in the Two Harbors High School wood shop.

There was a debate underway – how was the top piece of wood supposed to be cut? After a minute or two of discussion, and a few glances at the half- finished shed sitting just feet away, the students came to a consensus and began marking the beam.

“They want to learn. They want to build,” shop instructor Kyle Chalupsky said.

Chalupsky is in charge of the all-female construction class, which is in its second year at THHS. Last year, the girls tackled a canoe. This year, they are working on a tool shed for the school’s garden.

“I hope by doing it, these ladies get comfortable and take more of these classes,” he said.

Showing no signs of discomfort around the heavy machinery in the shop, Stephanie Evanchik put on a pair of safety glasses and lined up the beam in question, expertly slicing a piece off with a circular saw. Breauna Peterson held the board steady and carried it to a nearby table when it was ready.

“He makes us do all of the work,” Evanchik said, but she wasn’t complaining.

The girls had a variety of answers for what they loved about Chalupsky’s class: “hands-on” and “fun” were the most popular responses.

“He never thinks any of our questions are stupid,” Peterson said.

The shop teachers aren’t put off by the influx of women. Mike Fitzpatrick teaches courses next door in the metal shop. He said the class is a great way to get more girls into previously male-dominated trades. He said a former THHS student worked her way through all of the metal and woodshop classes and is now an

instructor at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. All-girl classes might get more young women to follow in her footsteps.

“These classes get more women in the program,” he said, and from there, “the sky’s the limit.”

THHS Principal Brett Archer said that jobs in the trades provide good, stable work and he hopes the class inspires more girls to consider giving them a try.

“We want the girls to feel like the shop is a place where they should be or could be,” he said. “People can find economic freedom in the trades.”

Chalupsky cited quotas in the area that encourage businesses to hire women in careers where they haven’t traditionally been represented – meaning that it’s possible for a qualified woman to get a welding or construction job.

“They have awesome opportunities in the trades,” he said.

Back in the shop, the girls were discussing design ideas for the front of the shed. They decided that the structure should be accessible to all, including those who use wheelchairs, so a wider door is in order.

Though none of the young women expressed enthusiasm for the design phase, they seem to take it in stride as part of seeing the project from start to finish. It’s just one of the lessons that Chalupsky said he hopes his students will carry beyond the classroom.

“I try to make (the lessons) applicable to real world experience,” he said. Though a shed is a simple building, he’s encouraging sturdy, complex construction that more resembles the manufacture of a house,so if the girls buy homes in the future, they can tackle their own DIY renovations and draw on the skills they’ve learned at THHS.

The class is gaining popularity – while just five girls participated last year, all of them returned this spring and six more joined – Archer said the girls will ultimately decide if the class will continue.

This year, it was funded by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, an organization that advocates for gender equality. It’s the hope that girls will eventually feel more comfortable in all shop classes; if this year’s students sees a need for the program to continue, it will.

The girls are already planning what they’ll do in the shop next year.

“Can we weld?” Krysten Linville asked Chalupsky Tuesday, followed by a chorus of agreement and interest from the rest of the class.

It’s clear these women are comfortable and skilled in the shop – and ready for more.

“They are raring to build,” Chalupsky said.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141