When AmeriCorps grant coordinator Tanza Pugliese nominated Andrew Dalke for YouthBuild USA’s Outstanding AmeriCorps Member Spirit of Service Award, she had no doubts about the connection Dalke had to the students he worked with. “There are so many days that he stayed really late because he realized this was a safe space for students and he wanted to make sure that those students that stayed late had a place to be longer,” Pugliese said. “Andrew is so genuine and the students know that he cared. He would do whatever he could to support them, whether it was in or out of the school.”
Dalke served as an AmeriCorps service member at YouthBuild Charter School and is the third service member from YouthBuild Charter to win the national award in three years. Since 1992, YouthBuild has graduated more than 2,600 students and provided more than a million hours of community service. We spoke with the quiet Oregon native about his background in construction, and breaking the mold of traditional educational models.
What is something you learned participating in YouthBuild that mattered to you the most?
A lot of what YouthBuild tries to teach is the way you can fail, learn from that mistake, and take that piece of knowledge. A lot of what we try to teach people is that when you do get to that moment of failure, being able to reflect on that and take what went right and what didn’t is incredibly important. It was incredibly important for me and the students that we were working with. That process of self-growth and trying to look inside yourself to find next steps as opposed to looking outwards and looking for other people to validate your path is an important message that YouthBuild emphasizes.
What was your professional path before YouthBuild?
I grew up in Oregon, which is a really particular place to grow up. Growing up there, when I hit 18 I wanted to get out and experience a different part of the country. Growing up in the public school system out there, especially during the recession, the schools were never what they were supposed to be. I think that started a passion in me for education. I went to college and tried to pretty much get as far away as possible. When I was there, I was thinking of going into the education field.
I did one year at an elementary school in West Philly and that school felt like more of the problem than the solution. A lot of the teacher-student dynamics and student-school dynamics didn’t feel right to me. When I saw a position opened up at YouthBuild — a place I actually applied at the year before and didn’t get the job — I was back home in Oregon and got a phone call from the director of student life and pretty much headed crosscountry after that. I was looking for a different kind of education that felt less institutional and more a place where people could actually go through that process of self-exploration and self-growth.
What was your background in doing construction-related projects before YouthBuild?
Construction was something that I was always around growing up and actually when I applied for YouthBuild I was working construction back in Oregon. It was kind of an “over the summer” kind of thing or when I needed money. I always liked doing things with my hands but I never really bought into the “why” behind it as much as with education. YouthBuild was this cool blend of the two where you got to get out of textbooks or TED Talks or whatever people use to teach these days and more into hands-on learning and that worked better for me.
What makes students gravitate to YouthBuild’s method as opposed to the typical approach of the classroom?
When I was younger and had more energy, I used to deal with stress and anxiety and [that] made it really hard for me to sit still in a classroom. Because of that, my mind would always wander. I would sit in class and stare out of the window. So I think when you get to do things like construction projects or get to break that mold of having to make sure your body is quiet, you can kind of just engage on a different level with what you’re doing.
For me, that movement was always a release of energy that would help calm me down and help me focus on the material. I think it just helps calm whatever that extra energy that have got going is. You can get the same sort of release, regardless of what you are going through, through something like moving your hands and thinking through something physically in space and think through concepts. I think it’s another approach that works with some people that the traditional educational system might not work with.
What are some of the most unique things that you discovered about Philadelphia students during your time working with YouthBuild?
I think about it in a couple of different ways. On the student side, I think Philly has a very strong culture. Philly’s got a really cool sense of community. Also, the energy the students bring to the school everyday makes the environment. I think what YouthBuild does is create a space where the energy is not a problem and is an actual piece of the education. Students bring their full authentic Philly selves to school everyday and it’s pretty awesome to be around. A lot of education in America tries to mitigate cultural differences, especially if you’re not a straight white middle-class Christian male. The preferencing of that culture over whatever cultures might exist makes school a more hostile space.
What’s next for you from a professional vantage point?
Immediately, I’m not sure, but long term, I want to keep working around this idea of community and what I’m trying to do is figure out a way to make the construction piece and physical skill set I have work within that same kind of community framework. I just think back to a lot of student stories that I’ve gotten to know here at YouthBuild, a major issue was housing and housing instability and security. I’d like to come up with a way to approach that issue.