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This school teaches low-income students to renovate houses—and helps them become homeowners

When students graduate from a new kind of school in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 20 or 21, they could end up owning a house.

The program, called Build UP (Urban Prosperity) Birmingham, is unlike any other school in the country. Low-income ninth-graders enter to earn a high school diploma, and then an associate’s degree, while also training as construction workers through paid apprenticeships. They learn in part by remodeling houses in Ensley, the blighted neighborhood where they live. Later, they can move into the newly remodeled homes, and eventually they get the chance to buy them.

Educator Mark Martin founded the program in 2018 after seeing how ill-equipped typical schools are to tackle larger societal challenges. “The kids that I’ve worked with my entire career have all been from pretty tough backgrounds in really low-income areas with very limited options and all the challenges that come in the door with the poverty,” he says. He saw teachers struggle to help students with problems—from hunger when their parents couldn’t afford food to mental illness—and also saw the teachers feel that their efforts were futile.

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