In an ordinary classroom, a group of mostly inner-city students is seated around a chalkboard. They tease each other and joke with their instructor as they engage in a discussion about “green” building techniques.
Despite the jovial atmosphere, the twenty-seven students gathered for Knoxville Leadership Foundation’s construction training program are serious about their work. And they’re relieved to be done with something called “mental toughness.”
“The whole concept of mental toughness is that it’s a team tryout,” says Adam Montgomery, director of housing for KLF. “Students are told that, hey, you’re here for two weeks just like you try out for high school football. Coach is going to sit there, he’s going to grade you. Do you show up? Is your uniform on? Did you give it your all? And did you come back the next day wanting more?"
Montgomery adds mental toughness isn’t as scary as it sounds; it’s simply a way for staff to evaluate who is ready to learn and who isn’t. But for students like Rome Wells, mental toughness comes with high expectations.
“They want you to come in, they want you to be on time, everything you do wrong you’re getting marked for,” Rome says. “You’re just basically trying to prove that you want to be here and that you’re tired of being a nobody.”
Rome, who started selling drugs after high school, learned about the construction program from his probation officer. And while not all the students have legal trouble, most face barriers to employment like unstable housing, or unreliable transportation. The goal of the program is to meet those pressing needs first so students are ready to learn.
“You’re going through, you’re establishing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Montgomery says. “You’re triaging students and saying, right here and now you need food because you can’t focus in the classroom if you’re hungry. You need transportation on the way home? Let’s get you on the bus pass, let one of our case managers ride with you and show you how to use the system.”
Some students, like Anthony Haynes, see the KLF program as an alternative to traditional high school.
“Three days into my senior year…I went up to one of the ladies that worked in the office, and I said, ‘This just ain’t me. I got two credits, there’s no need in me being here. Is it fine if I just go ahead and quit?’”
The construction program helps fill a gap left by the decline in high school vocational programs. Along with real world skills, students like Anthony get help completing their high school equivalency exams. And they have to pass their exams and complete their training as a class. Even if it takes longer than expected, Montgomery says, no one is left behind.
“If we have a class of who needs eight months to be ready, then we’ll delay graduation. Our students are a team, they’re a cohort, they become their own family,” he says.
Team-building activities go hand in hand with words of encouragement. Students are told that hard work leads to success. That’s a new idea for students like Rome Wells, who grew up believing he couldn’t get a good job without a college degree. He sees things differently now.
“It’s just kind of given me hope that I can make the amount in my head that I want to make when I’m older and I can build a family off of this program,” he says. “And I can just keep building myself up so I won’t fall again.”
Anthony Haynes smiles when he talks about his upcoming graduation. He says the ceremony will give him a sense of accomplishment he’s never felt before.
“I can’t wait to actually feel like I actually completed something in my life. It’s going to feel great. I’m going to be something in life.”
At the end of their training, both Rome and Anthony will have construction and safety certification. They’ll get help with job placement and resume writing. They’ll attend their graduation ceremony and they’ll leave the program with something intangible to go along with their diploma: hope for a better future.
This story was researched and reported by WUOT contributor Leslie Snow.