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Floating their own boat

David Constantine, 17, paddles a canoe he helped build as part of a project at Park High School. The school partnered with Urban Boatbuilders in St. Paul. (Forum News Service photo by William Loeffler)

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. -- Nobody smashed a bottle of champagne on the bow as the canoe embarked on its maiden voyage.

Still, the mood at Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park on May 27 was celebratory in a low-key way.

Park High School junior David Constantine, 17, was among the first to strap on a life jacket and paddle his handiwork out onto the lake on a muggy spring afternoon.

It was the culmination of months of work at Park, where he and four other students built the canoe from scratch.

“Building it was fun, sure,” Constantine said. “But to be able to float my own boat? That’s a whole different deal.”

Some days were less fun than others, said Constantine, who lives in Cottage Grove.  

“I had my days where I didn't want to do it,” he said. “In the beginning, it was just kind of like, ‘Eh, this isn’t gonna work.’ Look where we are today. We’re floating it.”

The students built the canoe in collaboration with Urban Boatbuilders, a nonprofit youth development organization in St. Paul. The group teaches wooden boat building skills to students and at-risk youth. Through tools and teamwork, kids can gain a sense of purpose and experience success as a direct result of their own hard work.

“We decided to partner with Urban Boatbuilders to give our students an opportunity to improve their science, technology and math and put it all to work in building a boat,” Park Principal Kerry Timmerman said. “It’s a great opportunity to put what they’ve learned into action.”

The students worked under the supervision of Park special education teachers Ryan Griffin and Jason Jankowski. Building the canoe was a way to motivate students who may not thrive in a conventional classroom setting, Griffin said.

“This was another way in bringing their engagement in school back,” Griffin said. “They’re pretty excited about being able to start something with just some wood and coming up with a boat. It’s been pretty amazing in their eyes to be able to build something like that.”

Urban Boatbuilders has similar boat projects in at least nine other schools in the Twin Cities, said executive director Marc Hosmer, who was on hand for the launch.

“Over the course of 70 hours students will turn a pile of sticks and lumber that we bring in, into a functional boat,” he said.

The boat was constructed using wood, ballistic nylon and a two-part polyurethane coating.

Urban Boatbuilders provide the materials as well as an instructor. For the Park project, students worked under the tutelage of Stu Barron, a licensed teacher and boatbuilder.

“The only power tool used in this whole thing was an electric drill,” Barron said. “It was just great to see them develop confidence.”

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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