“When we layout stairs, we are converting decimals to fractions, fractions to decimals, we are working with rises, runs and hypotenuses. It is magical watching a student’s eyes light up when they finally see a tangible application for the Pythagorean theorem.”
Robert Brightbill’s love for construction started in childhood, when his brother, 20 years his senior, asked 12-year-old Brightbill for help building a family home. Brightbill’s first job was to strike joints on block walls. He also nailed together headers for doors and windows, insulated windows, sanded drywall, stained trim and hauled stone with a wheelbarrow. “I fell in love with construction,” Brightbill said.
After high school, Brightbill earned an associate’s degree in construction technology—and built an extension on his parents’ home to pay them back for their support for his education. A jack of all trades, Brightbill learned all the elements of building a house and joined the advisory committee for construction classes at Dauphin County Technical School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. When the construction teacher there retired in 2002, Brightbill took the job.
Students entering Dauphin County’s building construction program study construction, HVAC, electrical, masonry and carpentry for several days before choosing a program that best fits their interests. This practice has improved retention rates in Brightbill’s program—fewer than two percent of students switch out after freshman year. “Of all the things we build,” Brightbill said, “the relationships are the most important.”
From there, Brightbill’s goal is “to pave the path to success” for his students, a diverse group that draws from rural and urban districts, every socioeconomic class and across ethnicities. His courses are articulated with several local colleges and trade schools, and partnerships with local businesses provide students summer job opportunities and cooperative education programming. Many students receive job offers before graduating, and, as Brightbill notes, leave his classroom earning more money than he does.
Outside of school, Brightbill’s students participate in a program he created called Building Construction Cares, a nationally recognized student-run service organization. Through the program, Brightbill and roughly 18 students travel to states affected by flooding and hurricanes, framing houses and re-shingling roofs from New Jersey to Mississippi. Students fundraise to pay for their own travel and supplies, totaling about $5,000 each year. In their local community, Brightbill’s students build handicap ramps for soldiers returning from Iraq.
“I have the best job in the world. Each ninth grader that enters my program is a seed that needs watered and tended to as it grows. My joy is watching that seed reach its fullest potential with my assistance.”