A Construction Class’s Dream House: Dundy County Stratton sees endless possibilities in Benkelman fixer-upper

A Construction Class’s Dream House: Dundy County Stratton sees endless possibilities in Benkelman fixer-upper

By Tyler Dahlgren

The quaint blue house on the south side of Benkelman was built in 1981, and though it may not draw more than a second glance from passers-by, its story of-late is quite fascinating.

Purchased by Dundy County Stratton Public Schools in July, its walls could tell quite the story. The ones still standing, that is. It’s a Tuesday morning in early October, and the school’s construction class is inside their dream house doing what teenage carpenters do best.

They’re tearing down some walls, and taking great joy in the process. Since first stepping into the house in August, the class of nine has launched a full-on renovation, learning invaluable skills and lessons along the way. 

“This is stuff they’ll never forget,” said their teacher, Ben Killingsworth, whose journey to Benkelman has been one rich with real-life real estate experience. “Going forward, they’ll have the skillset to handle anything that comes up. They won’t be scared to try it, because they will have these background skills.”

Killingsworth is right. It’s hard to imagine the students forgetting any of this. You haven’t seen true happiness until you’ve watched a high school construction class methodically carry out the demolition of a bedroom wall, but they’ve found a passion in the tactical stuff, too.

“That’s why I signed up for construction class in the first place,” said senior Jackson Kerchal, “to learn some of those things that you’re going to want to know and will need to know when you get older.”

The district is fortunate, said instructor Gregg Anderson, to have an excellent foundation that is forward-thinking when it comes to extending opportunities to students. Since the construction class was created five years ago, its students have renovated the football field’s “Crow Nest” press box and taken on several other small projects around town.

The idea to purchase a home starved for some attention had been floating around for awhile, until Anderson’s phone buzzed one day this summer. It was his wife, Dundy County Stratton superintendent Jackie Anderson, and she asked him to go look at a property on Cheyenne Street.

“I went and did the initial assessment and said, ‘Well, if the foundation won’t buy it, I will,’” Anderson said with a chuckle. “The price tag was right. It’s just a fantastic situation to have something like that (the foundation) behind you to be able to afford to do it.”

In Benkelman, there’s a huge need for housing. Traveling nurses, student teachers and families new to the community often struggle finding a place to live. The district’s new property on Cheyenne is not only an investment in its students, but an investment in the community.

Anderson sees it as an endless project. Maybe they fix up this house, sell it to the perfect family, and go on to fix up another. When they do, the district will have enough money to both pay the foundation back and lay down seed money for the next one.

“There’s a little bit of that ‘grow your own’ mindset, too,” Jackie Anderson said of the district’s commitment to skills and trades. “To help kids see a way to come back, that’s a big investment in the future of the community, but it’s also a big investment in the future of the school. You want to make it a viable place where teachers are proud to teach. This will help us attract new teaching talent as well.”

Killingsworth is a prime example. After teaching shop for 26 years in Denver, Killingsworth retired in 2011 and focused on other career ambitions, which included flipping houses and operating bed and breakfasts, all the while working for the county.

When longtime shop teacher Doug Newcomb retired, Killingsworth sent in an application, interviewed, and was hired. He’d planned on teaching for a couple of years or so. That was five years ago.

“I’ve taught all these guys’ older brothers,” Killingsworth laughs. “I’ve tried to really share with them the little things, those little life lessons. You learn those little things throughout your whole life, and I’ve been blessed. I’ve been exposed to a lot of things. You learn a little bit from everything you do, and I just try to pass that on to the kids.”

With the district’s new house, he’s got plenty to pass along.

“It’s a viable way to learn,” said Killingsworth, whose hour and a half construction class seems to fly by faster and faster each time. “I told them, ‘You guys are all going to be in a house, whether you own that house or you rent it, and you’re going to have to take care of it.’ Everything they’re learning they can use down the road and it needs to be taught.”

This is a new experience for Killingsworth’s students, one the district is proud to offer.

“I am so ecstatic that they are loving it,” said Jackie Anderson. “The feedback from them is overwhelmingly positive. It’s something that makes them excited to come to school.”

Junior Austin Cole signed up for construction class with some background experience, having built a garage a few feet taller than the one that sits at the end of the house’s driveway. He wants to be a diesel mechanic one day, and has aspirations of running a construction business, too.

“This has already been a worthwhile experience,” said Cole. “It’s fun, because we get to do hands-on stuff that we’ll be able to use forever. If we ruin something at our own houses, we know how to fix it right away ourselves, and we won’t have to spend a whole lot of money.”

The class has learned that home ownership isn’t always a picnic. Killingsworth points out some paneling that needed to come down but was glued to half an inch of plywood.

“The boys were sweating pretty good after that one,” he said.

That’s why Gregg Anderson refers to the course as “Life-Skills Construction.” There’s a lesson at every turn, some extending beyond the walls of the blue house on Cheyenne Street and into the real world. There’s value in that, said sophomore Klinton Rinne, who hopes future generations of Dundy County Stratton students keep this special project going for years to come.

“My advice for them would be to not be afraid to try something new like this,” Rinne said. "Everybody makes mistakes.”

With hammers in hand, Dundy County Stratton’s construction class is finding out that learning from those mistakes can be a whole lot of fun.


They Said It!


"It's been a total gift to have somebody who is both excited and passionate about the project. Both of them (Killingsworth and Gregg Anderson) come from a standpoint of experience. They know what it's like to be a homeowner and to be somebody who has to fix things for themselves. The talent we've got here, it's the only thing that makes this possible. If you were in a place where no one was willing to step up, you wouldn't have it."-Jackie Anderson

"They look out for us. They do a lot of good things for us. They're helpful and mindful. We have an awards presentation that's focused on what students excel at, which is pretty cool. It's nice to know you have people behind you, because later in life you're not going to always have that. You always have people in your corner here."-Senior Jackson Kerchal

"All the teachers here are nice and will help you out with anything you ever need."-Sophomore Klinton Rinne

"It's just a great class to teach. Even when they make mistakes, you can see them learn. That's awesome to watch as a teacher."-Ben Killingsworth

"I mean, you can't be working your butt off every second of every minute, but these guys pretty much are."-Ben Killingsworth