See more of the story

The high school seniors gathered around pristine wooden tables and marveled at the shiny new wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools in front of them. The students will use the new, state-of-the-art classroom just off Lake Street in Minneapolis to pursue skills designed to launch them into modern trades careers.

Lake Street Works, the after-school program that brings them there, is unveiling its $1.5 million renovated classroom building in a grand opening Tuesday. It's a shiny new space for the two-year-old workforce development school that aims to help low-income teens and high school students of color.

Money for the renovation came from donors, including some corporations, leaders said. The space includes about $30,000 in donated Milwaukee Tools and part of it is designed to look like work spaces at Egan Co., a contractor and trades provider based in Champlin.

"Our goal is to have potential employers' mouths drop," said Jess Coykendall, Lake Street Works program director. "We want to knock their socks off, so we're trying to create an environment students will recognize when they leave."

The yearlong, twice-a-week program, part of the nonprofit Urban Ventures, pays students $50 per four-hour class period. Four trades — electrical, plumbing, carpentry and HVAC — are each taught in sessions 10 to 12 weeks long.

High school seniors who complete the program are eligible for a paid internship with a contractor or a scholarship to Dunwoody Technical College.

There are 28 students in the program this year, said David Hawn, CEO of Urban Ventures, but leaders hope to increase participation to 90 eventually.

While the program is dedicated to students who want to go into trades, instructors also teach students character development, knowing it plays a big role in success, Coykendall said.

Many students in the program witness violence, drug use and other issues in their lives, Coykendall said. The program is a safe space for students to come. Some even call staff members on the phone when they need help or advice.

Many students in the neighborhood "don't grow up with two parents who have the time and the resources to teach them how to shake hands, network and look people in the eye," Coykendall said. "We are trying to help this neighborhood and the youth and their families here."

Eve Selken teaches a class on interviewing at Lake Street Works in Minneapolis.
Eve Selken teaches a class on interviewing at Lake Street Works in Minneapolis.

Renée Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Coykendall says he can already see glimmers of success: One of the students in this year's class is a third-generation gang member, Coykendall said. When instructors mentioned a five-year apprentice program, some students complained it would take so much time.

But the boy turned around to his classmates and said, "But what if you started today?" Coykendall recalled.

Coykendall said that is what the program is about: starting somewhere.

The new space, he said, brings the organization momentum.

"The fact that people share our vision and are willing to invest in it, not just money, but time and resources, to want to come together and to be along for the ride" has been inspiring, Coykendall said.

Madison Roth is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.