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132-year-old North Bennet Street School builds for future

Keimody Crockett (left) watched a demonstration of work on a wall cabinet by Stewart Pugsley, John D’Anna, and Sam Holcomb.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Keimody Crockett (left) watched a demonstration of work on a wall cabinet by Stewart Pugsley, John D’Anna, and Sam Holcomb.

Keimody Crockett leaned over a half-built bookcase, skimmed his finger through a plastic tub, and collected a smidgen of putty. He pushed the filler into a crevice between the bookcase’s poplar frame and a slender strip of molding, then used a sliver of wood to remove the excess.

Such work, slow and painstaking as it is, gives Crockett great satisfaction.

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“I just love seeing it go from beginning to end, from rough wood to sanded wood . . . just all the finishing touches,” the 19-year-old said earlier this week.

Crockett is a student in the one-year carpentry program at the North Bennet Street School and among the first to study on its $25.4 million campus, which opened this fall. Crockett is also making his own fresh start, with a full scholarship provided through the professional trade school.

Changes are ushering in a 21st-century vision for the 132-year-old North End school.

Spacious workrooms, broad hallways, and a soaring atrium have replaced the school’s cramped, labyrinthine old location a quarter-mile away. With the dramatic new space, the school’s president says, North Bennet Street is moving closer than it has been in decades to its founding mission: providing job skills and social services to the city’s working poor.

Toward that goal, the school has developed a workforce-
development initiative, with scholarships supported by the school, BNY Mellon’s charitable giving program, and local foundations. It is looking to expand its carpentry program to serve twice as many students and to enlarge partnerships to teach woodworking to local middle school students.

“There’s been a trajectory of the school from neighborhood-focused in the early part of the [20th] century, to city-focused in the 1950s and ’60s, to nationally focused in the past 20 years,” Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, who has led the school since 2006, said in an interview. “Now . . . we’re returning to the roots of the school without losing what we’ve become.”

Traditional crafts taught at the school — including furniture making, bookbinding, and jewelry making and repair — have gained new relevance, especially since the global financial crisis in 2008 left so many people jobless. Greater interest in the school increased pressure to find a space that would bring its eight professional programs — split for years between the North End and a rented facility in Arlington — back under one roof.

The solution was a May 2012 deal with the city: The trade school gave up its old campus, valued at $6.7 million, for the expansion of the Eliot K-8 School and paid an additional $4.6 million for the city’s former printing building at North and Richmond streets and the adjacent former police station.

After an additional $14 million in construction costs, the school opened on schedule Sept. 9. It will celebrate the new digs Friday with a formal dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. and an open house set to run through the afternoon and continue Saturday.

Gómez-Ibáñez said many of the school’s students, who number about 160 and include military veterans, are attracted to its practical curriculums. He cited locksmithing and carpentry. “Here are programs that can provide students coming in with a meaningful job and a good salary in just nine months,” he said.

Such jobs will always be in demand, he said, providing stability for his students that might be the envy of unemployed and underemployed college graduates.

As part of its deal with the city, the school now offers a full scholarship to a young Boston resident each year. The first recipient is Crockett, a graduate of Madison Park Technical Vocational High School who grew up in Dorchester and now lives with his mother and younger sister in East Boston.

Brian Vogt, who heads the carpentry program, said that Crockett has had to mature quickly over the past two months and learn to be responsible in an environment with fewer rules than high school.

“I told him, ‘You’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here to get an education that’s going to keep you employed for a lifetime,’ ” Vogt said. “All he has to do is show up and work hard, and he’s going to have something no one can take away from him.”

Crockett, whose uncle and grandfather are carpenters, said he has always enjoyed working with his hands. As a boy, he said, he would lie in bed with his grandfather and watch home restorations on the WGBH program “This Old House.”

The men helped fill the void after Crockett’s father, Kenya Alexander, was shot to death in Dorchester in 2001. His mother, Kecia Crockett, wanted to fulfill her son’s dream of attending the North Bennet Street School, he said, but worried about money before he was awarded the scholarship.

“It actually was a big relief for her,” Crockett said. “She was very happy that she was going to be able to send me here and still help me [financially].”

Now, he is one of 15 carpentry students of varied backgrounds who range from 19 into their 40s. They work on projects collaboratively.

The diversity and freedom of his new environment has taught Crockett life lessons along with practical skills.

“I realized I needed [more] self-discipline,” he said. “They look to you to be responsible in yourself.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
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