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Woods students build BOLI courtroom furniture

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - Gaston Woods 3 students Cody Jeffries (left) and Nate Lewis (right) listen to teacher Wade Sims explain how to attach wheels to plywood. The wheels will make the judges bench maneuverable for easy BOLI courtroom set-up.When Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) judges weigh wage and civil rights cases, the proceedings take place around one table, often placing the victim and perpetrator side by side in an awkward logistical situation.

The students of Gaston High School’s Woods 3 class have spent the past two months fixing this problem.

At the request of Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, they built six tables and a judge’s bench for BOLI.

Last Wednesday, Avakian visited Woods teacher Wade Sims and his students to thank them for the tables they had already delivered and to check their progress on the judge’s bench.

The high-pitched hum of saws greeted Avakian as he strolled past wood-dusted worktables. Students in green Gaston Carpentry T-shirts sanded wood panels or fiddled with the placement of wheels on plywood. They demonstrated the smooth opening and closing of a desk drawer.

“That’s just perfect, isn’t it?” Avakian said, explaining that the drawer’s quiet closure wouldn’t heighten the tension already present in a courtroom.

Avakian approached Sims about constructing the courtroom furniture after hearing about Gaston’s reputation for quality carpentry. He wanted to work with high school students to show his support for vocational courses in secondary education.

It’s turning out to be a mutually beneficial relationship.

“This is a place where people find justice,” Avakian said of the BOLI hearing room. “Every case will now be decided from the Gaston High School judge’s bench.” by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian (center) explains to Gaston High Schools Woods 3 class how the courtroom furniture will be used at the Bureau of Labor and Industries in Portland. The students spent two months working on tables and a judges bench to be used during BOLI wage and civil rights cases.

Sims said the partnership is smart: it gives the students experience, as well as dual high school and college credit, while saving BOLI about $20,000 in furniture costs.

Some students participated in a courtroom simulation at the bureau to understand the use of the furniture and take measurements before construction began. They drafted designs and sent them to BOLI officials for approval.

The students designed the tables so that they can be pushed together to form a long conference table, or taken apart for prosecutors and defendants to sit separately.

“It feels good that it will be used for something important,” said carpentry student Austin Waibel.

Students said they join Woods classes because they want to get college credit or do something creative in addition to academic work. By a show of hands, many are also interested in pursuing a career in carpentry.

The expertly crafted chairs and hallway tables lining the back of the shop don’t betray the age of their teenage carpenters — and the pupils’ reputation for expertise gets Gaston more than just a few gigs. Sims said he receives more requests for projects than he can accept. Next year, the students will build cabinets for a house Sherwood High School students are constructing.

Sims has worked for the Gaston district for 15 years and has 27 years of carpentry experience.

“The best thing about [Woods] classes is it’s not math on paper, it’s math in the real world,” Sims said. “It’s like a part-time job. I treat them like employees.”

Sims estimates he’ll bring the judge’s bench to the bureau’s offices in Northeast Portland after school ends, around June 12.

“It’s kind of sad in a way,” student Christian Waters joked of the well-crafted furniture. “You wish it was yours in the end.”

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