Lesford Dixon, who teaches carpentry at Construction Careers Academy (CCA) in San Antonio, was surprised in his classroom by a representative from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools with the news that he and his school will receive $50,000—$35,000 for the school’s skilled trades program and $15,000 for him.
“The creativity and hands-on projects that Mr. Dixon and the other winning teachers bring to their classrooms is an inspiration,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “This is education at its best, and we are humbled to honor these teachers and shine a light on excellence in skilled trades education.”
Three $100,000 first-place prizes were awarded to a welding teacher from Georgia, a building trades teacher from Michigan and an industrial diesel mechanics teacher from Ohio, with the prize winnings split between the individual teacher or team and their high school skilled trades program. Fifteen second-place winners across the country, including Dixon, were also surprised with the news that they and their schools had won the cash award. In addition to the more than $1 million in first- and second-place prizes awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, the company Harbor Freight Tools donated $34,000 to 34 semi-finalists.
The prize was started in 2017 by Harbor Freight Tools Founder Eric Smidt to recognize extraordinary public high school skilled trades teachers and programs with a proven track record of dedication and performance. The prize is awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, a program of The Smidt Foundation.
“These incredible teachers are an inspiration—to their students, to their communities and to us,” said Eric Smidt, Harbor Freight Tools founder. “They are masters of their trades and instill in their students a passion for the skilled trades that gives them a path to a meaningful, good-paying career. These are local jobs in every community across America, building and repairing homes, fixing cars and appliances, and so much more. We’re honored to be able to recognize these teachers for inspiring and developing the future workforce our country needs.”
Dixon has worked in construction for 18 years in three countries but is most proud of building the carpentry program at Construction Careers Academy. Dixon teaches his students how to build houses, and he brings the work and skills to life through stories of his work experiences and early life in Jamaica. In addition to being a licensed home inspector, he is an adjunct professor of construction technology at St. Phillips Community College and a National Center for Construction Education & Research certified instructor.
“At Construction Careers Academy, students master their crafts in only four years and walk the stage better qualified than much of the current workforce,” Dixon wrote in his prize application. “I take great pride in being able to simplify complex concepts into modules that students can understand and master in such a short timeframe.”
In an effort to keep projects resourceful and low-cost, Dixon’s students design and manufacture custom furniture by utilizing leftover wood, and they sell most of what they design and create. Dixon added a final project in which students make a personal memento to utilize their cumulative skills, explore their creativity, and remind them of the legacy they built at CCA.
Dixon believes that the safe space he has created in his carpentry program supports learning and builds his students’ self-esteem and offers options for young people who don’t always believe they have choices. Unwilling to engage in a debate of “college vs. career,” he emphasizes that each student must find what he or she is passionate about and, for many, working with one’s hands provides that fulfillment.
“The greatest part of teaching a skilled trade: being able to see the impact that my students make upon the world,” Dixon said. “Every profession has meaningful outputs, but there is something beautiful about driving by a house or an office building and knowing that it exists because of my students.”
The first-place winners of the 2018 prize are Gary Bronson, an industrial diesel mechanics teacher at Laurel Oaks Career Campus in Wilmington, Ohio, Charles Kachmar, who teaches metals and welding at Maxwell High School of Technology in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and Andrew J. Neumann, a building trades teacher at Bay Arenac Intermediate School District Career Center in Bay City, Michigan. Kachmar and Neumann will each receive $100,000—$70,000 for the school’s skilled trades program and $30,000 for the teacher. Because of Ohio’s state policy regarding individual cash awards to public employees, Bronson’s school will receive the entire prize winnings.
The school’s prize winnings will support the skilled trades program being recognized, and the teacher’s or teacher team winnings can be used at their discretion.
The 2018 prize drew more than 550 applications from 49 states and included three rounds of judging, each by an independent panel that included experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership. The field was narrowed this summer to 52 semi-finalists. The application process, which included responses to questions and a series of online video learning modules, was designed to solicit each teacher’s experience, insights and creative ideas about their approach to teaching and success in helping their students achieve excellence in the skilled trades. All learning modules are available here.
For a list of the other 14 second-place winners, click here. The high schools of the remaining 34 semi-finalists will each receive a $1,000 Harbor Freight Tools gift card to support their skilled trades programs. The list of the semifinalists is available here.
For more information about the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, including the final round panels of judges, please visit hftforschoolsprize.org
About Harbor Freight Tools for Schools
Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is an initiative of The Smidt Foundation, established by Harbor Freight Tools Founder Eric Smidt, to support the advancement of skilled trades education in America. With a deep respect for the dignity of these fields and for the intelligence and creativity of people who work with their hands, this program was created to foster and shine a light on excellence in skilled trades education in public high schools. Believing that access to quality skilled trades education gives high school students pathways to graduation, opportunity, good jobs and a workforce our country needs, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools aims to stimulate greater understanding, support and investment by public entities and others in skilled trades education. Harbor Freight Tools is a major supporter of the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools program. For more information, visit https://harborfreighttoolsforschools.org