Our Kind of People

Their Gulfport students don’t sit behind a desk all period to prepare for the real world

School for Gulfport High juniors and seniors is so different than it was for their parents.

In 2010 the school became the first in the state to switch to a combination of academic and career-focused learning, where the students decide what and how to study, whether they want to work in hospitality and tourism, become a teacher, a chef, an engineer or learn robotics. With project-based learning, they then choose a project in that field and work on it all year.

“Whatever the kids want to do we want to nurture it — within reason,” said Gerald “Dave” Huffman. He and Patrick Wadsworth just snagged a $30,000 grant as one of the finalists in the 2017 Harbor Freight Tools For Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, competing with teams from across the country.

Now $20,000 of the prize money goes to the high school program and $10,000 to the team to use on their programs as they see fit.

“We don’t want to spend it,” Huffman said. “We want to invest it in our future.”

Money is not always in the school budget for the equipment and programs he and Wadsworth know will teach and inspire their students, he said. “We’ve got to think outside the box to realize our dreams.”

Building with passion

Huffman teaches construction technology at the high school and Wadsworth teaches English and technical writing — two completely different subjects yet very connected.

“Their students work collaboratively on projects, melding technical and academic learning into a robust, real-world education,” it says on the Harbor Freight contest website.

In other words, kids learn how to build in Huffman’s class and how to write about the project and present their work in Wadsworth’s course. These are skills that will serve them whether they go on to college, to trade school or to a job, they said.

“We try to get the kids to figure out what they’re passionate about,” Huffman said, then figure out how to make money doing it. That’s why students drop out, he said, because they go to school for something they’re not passionate about.

Dawson Doucet’s passion was building a boat; more particularly a flat-bottom pirogue.

“Typically I wouldn’t let a first-year student take on something like that,” said Huffman. But passion drives success, he said, Doucet, now a senior, was adamant about building his boat from the beginning.

Shortly after the 2016 school year began, his brother John Harrison Doucet nearly died from a severe electrical shock from overhead power lines outside the Gulfport Yacht Club. The 20-year-old suffered burns over 75 percent of his body and both legs and an arm were amputated.

While he spent seven months in the hospital recovering from those injuries, his brother worked on his boat in class with help at times from five other students.

Dawson Doucet now aspires to follow the career his brother was pursuing.

Doucet’s dream is to “be a boat captian,” he said.

He paid $400 for the materials for a boat that in a store costs between $1,000 and $12,000. The difference is when you make it yourself — learning to shape the wood, weld the metal bow and build custom seats that come out to create room for a dog to ride along — “That boat’s going to be worth a million dollars to you,” he said.

The boat does float and he did get an A, he said, and as a bonus he became better at math.

Growing interests

College isn’t for everybody, and his teachers understand that. Huffman went into the Air Force for 10 years, working in construction and helping build multimillion dollar facilities in Iraq, before he enrolled in college and became a teacher.

Like many of his students, “I hated math. I was horrible at it,” he said. When he opened his sheet metal fabrication book in his Air Force class and saw it was all math, he thought he would fail. But his instructors showed him how to grasp math by applying the education. He did that and he’s brought that experience to his students, who he he said don’t want to just learn the numbers. “These kids want to know why,” he said.

Wadsworth came from another school district to Gulfport five years ago, soon after the new project-based education was introduced.

“I was just excited about if from the beginning,” he said. Students need to know their subject inside and out, he said. Part of that is Stand and Deliver, where every student tells the class about the progress of their project, what’s worked and what didn’t.

Lessenie Montanez admittedly finds that a bit intimidating. A native of Puerto Rico, she is the only girl in the transportation/automotive class. She’s also head gardener in the greenhouse Huffman and the construction class built with the Leo Seal Innovative Teacher Grant Wadsworth received.

A senior, Montanez said she doesn’t yet know if she will repair cars, grow vegetables of try another career. “I like to take advantage of every opportunity I get,” she said.

Logan DeAngelo wants to study marine biology and learn more about aquaponics, another project Huffman and Wadsworth have introduced to the students that allows them to grow plants and fish together in water.

DeShawn Spearman is a senior but didn’t become aware of the school’s construction program until he learned about it through Wadsworth’s technical writing class last year.

“That’s the beauty of collaboration,” Wadsworth said. Spearman now is learning to work with tools, building Adirondack chairs and is considering going to community college to learn how to be a professional carpenter.

Partnering up

Besides working together to find grants to help their students, Huffman and Wadsworth collaborate with community partners they’ve assembled to give the kids real world experience and opportunities for the future.

Ingalls Shipbulding saves about 25 apprentice slots for students who go through construction programs from Coast schools, the said.

Roy Anderson Corp. allowed students to do some of the inspections while the company was constructing and renovating their school.

Now Harbor Freight is a partner, the teachers said.

Students in the Gulfport School District begin learning about careers and developing their interest in elementary and middle school, so that by the time they reach 10th grade, they’ll be ready to choose the part and project for their final two years. An open house in February lets the public come see the classrooms and what the students are accomplishing.

Sometimes he can tell from the beginning who will excel, Huffman said. Sometimes the students’ inspiration and passion grow once their interests are nurtured and they get involved in their project.

“They never cease to surprise me,” he said.

About the series

Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.