Stories of Promising Practice: Peyton School District Woods Manufacturing Program
Friday, December 1, 2017
Back in 2002, when Tim Kistler became Peyton School District's superintendent, he and school board member Mark Schultz started talking about beefing up the district’s career and technical education (CTE) (then called vocational education) program. Schultz, a businessman who owns a commercial cabinetry company, noted how hard it was to find qualified employees who knew how to run the sophisticated machinery used in present-day wood manufacturing. He had well-paying jobs available but filling them proved a challenge.
The district sprawls across 122 square miles of rolling prairie 25 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. Eighty percent of its 660 students are white, 12 percent Hispanic, with the remaining 8 percent divided among African American, Asian, and mixed-race students. Just under 30 percent of Peyton students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch.
Two major obstacles stood in the way of expanding CTE in Peyton: money, and a place to house such a space-intensive program. In 2004, a new Peyton high school building opened, and the former junior high-high school building became the junior high.
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the district lacked funding to operate three school buildings. So, the seventh- and eighth-graders moved into the high school, and the old building was mothballed. “It became my storage facility,” Kistler said.
Though the recession put any CTE expansion plans on temporary hold, it proved a long-term blessing in disguise, because ultimately it solved the space problem. But funding challenges remained, and so expansion plans lay dormant.
Then, early in 2014, Schultz, no longer on the school board, read an article about a one-of-a kind woods manufacturing CTE program at a high-poverty high school in Salem, Ore. It was run by a serial entrepreneur named Dean Mattson.
Mattson had fallen into teaching almost by accident, after losing his wife to cancer and his cabinet-making company to the Great Recession within a matter of months.
“I got into teaching for all the wrong reasons, to be honest,” Mattson said. “I needed a job. I thought I’d start my business back up as soon as possible. Then the kids won my heart over. These homeless kids. They started calling me dad. It was very humbling.”
Using his industry contacts and the sheer force of his larger-than-life personality, Mattson took the Salem program, which had been considered the remedial track for mediocre students, and turned it into a model that attracted national attention.
The Salem program turned out 3,000 skilled wood manufacturing workers in Mattson’s six years there. Major companies including Stiles Machinery donated expensive, state-of-the-art machinery to the program.
Sensing an opportunity after hearing about Mattson’s program, Kistler hopped on a plane and went out to visit Salem. What he saw amazed him. “I spent two days looking around and talking to kids,” Kistler said. ‘Dean had created this whole system of student shop managers and supervisors. He was really preparing kids for the future.”
When Kistler returned to Peyton, he won board approval to offer Mattson a three-year consulting contract. Mattson was uncertain about making the move, but Kistler treated the avid fisherman to a fly-fishing trip on the Conejos River, and that sealed the deal.
Mattson also saw the now-vacant junior high-high school building as an ideal facility for a wood manufacturing program, and perhaps even a national training center he dreamed of starting.
The Peyton district signed a contract with Mattson in December 2014, and in early 2015, he started working with Kistler to build the Peyton Woods Manufacturing Program.
Peyton residents are a mix of commuters, who travel to Colorado Springs for work, and entrepreneurs who work from home. There are also a diminishing number of ranch and farming families in the area.
Given Mattson’s extensive contacts with woodworking equipment manufacturers and his track record in Salem, it didn’t take long for his relocation to Peyton to start paying dividends.
“There was no program when Dean arrived,” Kistler said. In fact, the large, sunny room that now houses the program and its hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of machinery was “filled with mats where cheerleaders could practice,” he said.
The first manufacturer to reach out was Stiles Machinery of Grand Rapids, Mich., which had worked with Mattson in Salem. Stiles flew Kistler out to Grand Rapids to assess his commitment to launching a major CTE effort in his tiny district.
“I wouldn’t exactly say I was grilled, but I was asked a ton of questions,” Kistler recalled. “Who I was? What was the plan? At the end of my visit they said the inventory of Stiles was ours.”
Stiles manufactures Computer Numerically Controlled precision woodworking machinery, likes lathes, grinders, and routers. So this literally was a big deal.
Once Stiles jumped in, it wasn’t long before other major manufacturers followed suit. Bosch, Triton, TigerStop, Kreg, Rikon, and JDS are among the many manufacturers whose machinery fills the 2,500 square-foot shop.
In total, Peyton’s Wood Manufacturing Program is home to more than $800,000 in high-end woodworking machinery.
How does a tiny district afford all this pricey equipment? Simple: By not paying for it. Kistler and Mattson have worked out deals with manufacturers that allow companies to use the Peyton shop as a living sales floor.
Machines are placed in the shop, and companies can bring prospective customers through to see the machinery in action from a glass viewing room. Students act as adjunct salesmen, stopping work to explain to customers how they use the machines. When a machine is sold, it is replaced by the company with the latest, most up-to-date model.
It’s a classic win-win situation. And perhaps the biggest winners are the students, who can use the best machinery in the world to learn high-end wood manufacturing skills that virtually guarantee them lucrative employment as soon as they’re ready to go to work.
It’s hard to believe that Peyton’s program launched as recently as the fall of 2015. It has the feel of a well-oiled machine. About one-quarter of Peyton High School students take part in the program. About one in four are girls, a number Kistler would like to see go up. “Girls make the best woodworkers,” he said.
During the 2016-17 school year, significant numbers of students from neighboring districts have started taking woodworking classes in Peyton as well. Widefield, Miami-Yoder, Elbert, Falcon, and Calhan districts all send students.
During the first year, Widefield sent nine seniors. They had to drive themselves 45 minutes each way, but they never missed classes, Mattson said. This year, Widefield runs wi-fi-equipped buses to transport students from other districts. Wi-fi allows them to do schoolwork while in transit.
Peyton is a four-day school week district. Students from other districts spend two class periods each day in the shop. Their home districts pay Peyton two-sevenths of the per pupil operating revenue for each student enrolled in the program.
Students can work toward a Woodwork Career Alliance Passport. A WCA Passport verifies the individual’s tool proficiencies, allowing them to document their skills. WCA maintains a national database of passport holders and their achievements.
Perhaps the best testament to the program’s success comes from its Oregon graduates. Mattson has brought three of his Salem students to Colorado to act as instructors. He’s quick that these were kids the school system had written off, but who are now highly proficient wood manufacturers, and able teachers as well.
Lorena Reyes graduated from Salem in the spring of 2016, and has been helping out in Peyton for several months. She’s considering settling in Peyton to become an assistant instructor.
Getting involved in the program was a life-changing experience, Reyes said. “Originally, I had never heard of woodworking, and I didn’t choose it. But then I saw how Mr. Mattson talked to students, and cared for them, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Now, Reyes said, “I’m in love with it.” Always an artist, Reyes said she discovered that woodworking is “a creation coming to life,” and she can’t imagine it not remaining an important part of her future.
Woods manufacturing CTE in Colorado underwent a recent major expansion, under the leadership of Kistler and Mattson. Last summer Peyton School District and the Widefield School District launched the Peyton/Widefield Vocational Education Campus, located in a 46,000 square-foot former potato chip factory south of the Colorado Springs airport. Widefield bought facility after issuing certificates of participation, a bond-like financial instrument.
The campus will be home to the National Woods Manufacturing Training Center. Mattson and Kistler envision the center as a place students from any district can take classes. They also want to open the center to military veterans and others seeking a career in woods manufacturing, as well as CTE teachers.
Ultimately, the center could expand to include training in automotive repair, metals, and construction.
A curriculum writer is putting Mattson’s program down on paper, and the curriculum will be offered for sale to other districts across the state and nation beginning this summer. The Peyton district owns the intellectual property.
Ultimately, Kistler sees a national network of training centers. He already has his sights set on Grand Rapids, where Stiles is headquartered, and North Carolina, the heart of the nation’s wood manufacturing industry.
“I can’t believe this all has happened in 18 months,” Kistler said, shaking his head. “Holy cow. We’re trying to hold onto our shorts here to make sure we do everything right.”