Student Home Building Case Study #1: GAP School

GAP School Projects

The following reflects conversations that took place in October, 2023 with GAP Educator Tony Zahradka, Khalique Rogers and Joe Nathan.  Thanks to Sundance Family Foundation, Youthprise, Judith D. Jones, Morning Family Foundation, Jody Nelson, and Rob Shumer for helping making this and other case studies, an October 23 zoom meeting, and other information avaiable.

What background/work experience prepared you to teach/run this program?  

Teaching 20 years in St Paul with at-risk and immigrant youth.  Worked both in St Paul Public Schools and at GAP (a contract alternative school).  Tony also spent five years working in construction – working during college and for two years after college.  Below are pictures of three of the houses that GAP students have built.









Pictures taken by Joe Nathan

2. What are examples of partnerships that have helped make the homes GAP students construct possible?

* An Architecture firm helped us obtain LEAD certification, design the house- all pro bono.  They also helped with variances and permits, 

* 3M donated house wrap and trainings with students – showed students how to apply;

 * Pella discounted cost of windows and did a training on how to install them.

* LP Smartside discounted siding and provided training on how to install;

* Plumbing, HVAC and electrical contractors were willing to have students help them.

3.. What advice would you give to other people considering creating a program to teach construction skills as they build for low income families?

* Have the right staff,  the right on-site person.  Find a person who’s mission driven.  Recognize that this person can make more money elsewhere.

* Seek out partnerships such as those described above.

* Seek out multiple sources of funding.  We’ve had several, including YouthBuild, Minnesota. We’ve received both state and federal YouthBuild funds.  


  1. What that you’ve done would you strongly encourage others to do?

* Get the right staff. Money without the right staff is meaningless.

Having your own site is invaluable. GAP has been able to buy vacant lots.  We’ve constructed one home on it and will be building three more.

*Habitat for Humanity may have only students doing one thing – we want students to have a full experience;

* Work with your county & city to obtain tax forfeited homes.  This saves an enormous amount.   If they did it once, they can do it again. This process can take years.

*   Unions have been great..  Plumbing unions going to do plumbing at our next house.  * Partnership has to be beneficial to each partner.

As GAP’s website notes:

“GAP School is a YouthBuild USA affiliate and YouthBuild AmeriCorps member.​ Both affiliations have produced funding for building/construction projects.

“Through our YouthBuild construction career pathway, participants build and/or renovate housing for low-income families in our community while gaining experience in a wide variety of construction skills such as carpentry, electrical, framing, insulation, “

“Our construction pathway utilizes the 50-40-10 model: 50% time spent in education, 40% time in construction skills training and work experience activities, and 10% in leadership development and community service. The program consists of 30 hours per week, with approximately 15 hours spent in classroom education (including career counseling and job placement), 12 hours in on-site workplace skills training, and 3 hours in leadership/community service, on average.”

“During all components of occupational skills training, participants are engaged in both project-based learning (for example, the overall goal of constructing a house) and problem-based learning (participants work in teams to plan specific actions regarding the construction).”

  1. Are there any mistakes or unexpected negative outcomes that if possible, people should avoid?

* Don’t expect to build a house and make money – break even is great.

*  Students will make mistakes.

* Make sure you have enough money so you can finish the project. 

* Supply chain issues can delay projects.

  1. Recognizing it varies from home to home, what are the approximate budgets for the homebuilding projects?

* $50,000 for a project when we got a donated house and land from the county;

* $250,000 for the last house, not including staff salaries.

  1. Anything else you’d like educators/community members to know?

In 2023, GAP received a national leadership award at the International Greenbuild conference for building a very eco-friendly house.

  • We were able to purchase a lot near our school. We’ve completed one house on this lot and are going to construct two more (see pictures below)
  • Whatever side of the political aisle you’re on – this is a win-win. Tax forfeited, often dilapidated homes go back on property tax roles and students learn construction skills.
  • GAP’s work has been described in a Star Tribune (also found here for those who don’t have a subscription) and a Pioneer Press article (also found here if you don’t have a subscription)
  • GAP is a part of Change, Inc.  This organization has several projects, including the school.

Photo on top by Joe Nathan                         Photo of home completed in 2023, above from Star Tribune – copyright Star Tribune


House under construction 2024, next to home

completed in 2023 by GAP students, courtesy GAP

Tony and several GAP graduates (photo by Joe Nathan)

  1. Student comments:

Two young people, Hser Pwe and Aung Myo Way,  who graduated from GAP, presented testimony to the 2023 Minnesota Legislature. This helped convince legislators to increase funding for these programs.  Please see below. This is followed by some comments from current students.

  • Testimony from Hser Pwe

    Hello Chair Champion, Co- Chair Mohamed and committee members.

    My name is Hser Pwe, I was born in Burma. I was grew up in a Thailand refugee camp. I lived there with my family for 12 years. We had to move there because of the civil war and Burmese soldier were trying to kill us and take our land. This the reason we had to flee our village and move to the Thailand refugee camp. When we lived there, I felt like we lived in prison because I could go outside of camp.  There were very few opportunities in camp.   

    In 2012 I moved to the United States. I did not know anything about America and I did not speak and English. I went to LEAP High School for a year but it was very difficult for me. I did not speak English and it was hard for me to understand what the teacher said. After a year I was unable to attend school there because I’m over 21 years old.

    Luckily for me I found the YouthBuild program in GAP school. I then realized I could have a high school diploma and learn construction skills, I finally felt like I had an opportunity and a future. In YouthBuild I learned a lot of English and started to communicate with others.  I really learned to love construction work. My wife, brother and cousin also graduated from the Youthbuild program at GAP School.

    I graduated in 2014.  The staff helped me find a job in floor covering and I joined the union. I still work there now.  It has been a great 8 years for me. I found a career I love and I make over $44/hr.  I have worked my way up to being a foreman. I’m so thankful for this program and all the staff who have helped me. Thank you so much to the YouthBuild program for giving me this big opportunity! Because of this program I can speak English, support my wife and children and I have even became a U.S. citizen. Without YouthBuild I do not know where I would be today.

    Hser Pwe Youthbuild graduate 2014

  • Testimony from Aung Myo Way

    Dear Chair, Rep. Jay Xiong, Vice Chair, Rep. Jeff Brand and members of the MN House Workforce and Development Finance and Policy Committee

    Thank you for the opportunity to explain how YouthBuild changed my life, and why I support on HF 1310.

    My name is Aung Myo Way and I am 30 years old. I was born in Myanmar, my country has been ravaged by war since 1948. When I was 5 years old I have to flee my village because the Burmese army came and burned it down. I was forced to move to Thailand and live in a refugee camp.

    My life was so hard in the refugee Camp. I was living in a wooden box that was hardly bigger than a dog house. We barely had enough food, we always ate every last grain of rice and any insect or animal we could find. l lived in the refugee camp for about 15 years. Those were the hardest years of my life. We had some school in refugee camp, but our education was very poor. When was 19 years old I had a big opportunity to move to America. It was a bitter sweet moment because I was told I had to leave with only my young twin sisters and leave my whole family, friends and country behind.

    When I firsts came to America I could barely speak English. I had a lot of problems, even going shopping was very difficult. The worst part was transportation and finding a job. America was very difficult to survive without good English skills and having no job experience. After about two years I heard about the Youth build program, they helped me improve my English skills and I gained experience in construction. In the YouthBuild program I learned about building houses and leadership. Youthbuild has produced a lot of good workers for the Union trades and other occupations. As an Immigrant Youthbuild program has been a very import part of my life.

    In Youthbuild I got my high school diploma and job skills that improved my life so much. I hope that more young people can join Youthbuild because it changed my life. I was working in a low paying job and I did not have a stable place to live. I myself have recommended many youth to join the program to improve their lives. My life has changed so much since I joined Youthbuild. Today I make more than $40/hr. as a Journeyman in the union, and I own my own home. I owe all my success to the Youthbuild program and I hope you will support them with increased funding for other young people like me.  .

    Aung Myo Way – GAP YouthBuild graduate 2015

Additional comments:

Ivan Casique Sanchez, quoted in the Star Tribune, “Muddling” and dry wall are “ kind of like making a sculpture…About, like, making perfection.”

Quoted in the Pioneer Press, Sanchez explained: “A lot of people liked the opportunity,..I definitely did. It’s probably a career path I’ll take.”

Boe Boe, a graduate of GAP, commented in the Pioneer Press on the home building project: “GAP School was the best school for me. I loved to come to the school everyday. On Sundays, I still wanted to come to school, because I was having so much fun.”

Student who preferred to remain anonymous:  “Traditional school was not for me. But I loved GAP – I loved the hands-on building project. I’m graduating soon and already have job offers.”