More than a woodshop, More than a teacher

Craig Conrad breathes life into dying program

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Nineteen years ago a young man from the state of Pennsylvania came to Craig, and has made ripples across the city, state, and country the man is Craig Conrad.

Conrad, Moffat County High School's wood shop teacher, has created an innovative way to run the high school workshops by making it self-sufficient.

The innovation was much needed. In 1985 with, the high school wood shop was thousands of dollars in the red and was given one more year to operate. Conrad didn't want to see what he considers the best shop in Colorado shut down, so he proposed that the shop become a for-profit venture. It was the move of a desperate man, but it made one man's favorite wood shop one of the top shops in the nation.

Each year shop students decide on a product that can be mass produced this year students made camp chairs go out into the community and sell the product, and take the profits remaining after the cost of material, and reinvest it in the shop. The students who participate by actually making the products also earn a profit off of what they produce and sell. This year they earned $15 from every chair sold.

"The program has worked great for us, and has allowed us to build a great shop," Conrad said.

The profits have steadily increased each year the first year students took home $5 from each sale and so has the demand for the student-produced furniture.

The demand has become so high, and the student so adept at selling, that Conrad only allows five days for the students to peddle their wares. That seems to be more then enough time. Students sold more than 500 chairs this year alone.

"The kids just get those dollar signs in their eyes when they're selling, and they can't be stopped. You can just imagine what would happen if I still allowed two weeks of sales time," he said.

Along with lessons on how to create and distribute a product, students receive a real life lessons in business, from what is cost-effective labor to managing their own accounts.

After one particularly profitable year, which the students earned $8,000, Conrad asked the returning class as to how much they had left most had none, so the shop teacher took the class even a step further. He taught his students how to invest their money.

"Most of my students were going out and spending their money on stereos and new rims for their cars, stuff that high school kids want. I decided that they needed to learn how to manage their money better, so I got the information on how to invest in Individual Retirement Account (IRA)," Conrad said. "Now each kid that goes through my mass-production class has an account set up," he said.

Conrad feels that his students learn more than just technical wood working skills like they would in typical shop classes. They learn real life skills.

He takes little credit for the success of his program, saying that ideas are a dime a dozen. The credit for the program, in Conrad's eyes, goes to the students who made it possible for the program to continue.

"It's like I tell the kids each year when they come in, 'Your standing on the shoulders of giants,'" he said.

The students also learn something that a majority of the time is glossed over classrooms, how to give back.

In the months preceding Christmas, Conrad's students are busy making toys anything from a rocking horse to a rocking wooden motorcycle to cradles. The wood shop students make these toys for a specific child and then give it to them as a holiday present with bells and whistles sounding.

The toys are presented at Santa's Woodshops, where shop students dress like elves and present the handmade toys to children. Santa's Woodshop is a madhouse of excited children who can barely be pulled from their toys once they are presented.

"It was a really gratifying thing to see two months worth of work bring so much happiness to a child," senior shop student Brain Dilldine said. "I made a movable motorcycle for a one of the kids my Mom babysits for. It was incredible how happy he was to receive a gift like that. It was probably the most memorable experience I had in my shop classes."

The innovative programs that Craig Conrad has developed with have not stayed a secret. The shop has been featured in Wood Magazine twice and has had statewide exposure from several Denver news stations.

The exposure brought a windfall of more than 400 letters to Conrad's desk from around the world. People want to know asking how he made his woodshop so successful. It has also led him to organize seminars on how to run a better shop program.

"One of the things I do in my seminars is have the shop teacher tell me what's one of the best things they do in their class, and I also ask for one of their worst problems," Conrad said. "I tell them that I want to hear the good ideas because I'm going to steal it for my class, and the problems can be solved with just some discussion."

Conrad fits well on the speaking circuit and has helped many schools salvage their shop programs. But wood shop classes aren't the only things the shop teacher looks to salvage.

Conrad is also a motivational speaker, traveling the high plains of Colorado and Wyoming presenting his anti-drug and alcohol address, "Unstoppable You."

"Unstoppable You" was created from of Conrad's personal experiences with the horror the abuse of controlled substances can create.

It was inspired by Donald Smith, a one-time student and then a tenant of one of Conrad's rentals.

The mistakes Smith made became are what Conrad uses to inspire students to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Smith is a convicted murderer, who, while drunk, shot his uncle eight times in the chest.

"The rage had been building up in Donald for months, because his uncle was his employer as well, and some alcohol was released in full force," Conrad said.

The "Unstoppable You" program was created to reach as many kids a possible, and involves something that Conrad is adept at storytelling.

Conrad guarantees the school he is lecturing at will have 90% of its students pledge to be drug free. If they don't, Conrad won't accept pay.

"It's never happened yet, and I've always gotten paid" Conrad said.

Smith helps Conrad illustrates his points when speaking. Near the end of his presentation, and after he tells the parallels of Smith, Conrad puts a call in to the state prison to have Smith tell his side of the story, and how alcohol brought him to be imprisoned.

"When I put the call in to Donald, you can hear a pin drop in the gym or auditorium I'm in," he said. "They all want to hear what he has to say. They listen more since he closer to his age."

For all that Craig Conrad has done, and the different ripples he has created, it is easy to understand what he means when he tells his students, "While your working on your projects in class, I'm working on mine you."

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