Concrete Makeovers: Portsmouth CTE students design planters to beautify outdoor dining

By Sarah Earle

It’s not every day that the problem you face is a literal barrier. Like, an actual concrete Jersey barrier. But that’s exactly the size and shape of the problem that students in Portsmouth High School Career and Technical Center’s Architecture/ Design Build class faced last winter. 

In June of 2020, downtown Portsmouth restaurants needed a way to open outdoor dining while leaving the streets open for traffic. It was a matter of survival, which meant the solution had to be fast and cheap, as well as safe. 

“We ended up borrowing 70 Jersey barriers from a construction company and dropping them into place. We had outdoor dining instantly,” said Anne Weidman, Director of Community Engagement for JSA Design Architecture Firm and a member of the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee for Reopening Portsmouth.

Fast, cheap, and safe, it was. 

“It was also really ugly,” Weidman said. 

Over the winter, the group purchased the barriers and started brainstorming how to make them a bit more aesthetically pleasing. The idea of painting art on them got a tepid response from business owners, who felt like the art would grab attention away from their shops and restaurants. One business owner suggested painting the barriers a solid color and fixing planter boxes atop them, but no one knew how to execute the idea. 

“Enter the CTE,” Weidman said. 

Alan Gold, another member of the committee, had an idea. “It just occurred to me — I said, ‘you know what? We’ve got this whole CTE program that makes stuff. We have these willing students, and everybody’s in lockdown,” he said. 

Gold approached Courtney Ritchings, Director of the Portsmouth High School Career and Technical Center, and the idea took off. Students in Steve Jones’ Architecture/ Design Build class created a blueprint and design for wooden planters that fit over the barriers like saddles and could be stacked for easy storage over the winter and stand alone if the barriers were done away with. 

“They designed what we all agree is the most innovative planter box we’ve ever seen,” Weidman said. “Their drawings were spot-on fabulous. They looked like they came from an architecture firm.” 

Jones brought the design to his woodworking class at Portsmouth High School, and they turned the woodshop into a production line. Over the coming weeks, with funding from the committee, the students made 55 planters. 

“Our restaurant owners were absolutely thrilled, and some asked if they could have more,” Ritchings said. 

Meanwhile, a local business owner and a master gardener teamed up with Portsmouth High School science teacher Kim McGlinchey, who runs the school’s eco club, to grow plants for some of the planters. In May, when the planters were finished, the local food pantry donated the use of its trucks and staff to transport the planters and put them in place.

“It was really, really wonderful to see how everyone worked together on this,” Ritchings said. 

“It was all kind of one big circle of people helping people,” Weidman said. 

And it didn’t end there. The Jersey barriers became bridges between the school and the wider community. Ritchings, Gold, Weidman, and several other community members have started a biweekly roundtable to brainstorm other ways to connect local businesses with CTE programs and to build enthusiasm for pursuing trades that are in demand in the local community.  

“We want to build on the traction that the planter boxes have given us, and to give young people a taste of what the construction trades really are and what they can be,” Weidman said. “The kids really felt empowered by this. They felt important.” 

“It’s all about engagement. It’s all about hands-on,” said Gold, who is also working on finding more funding streams for the CTE center. “Get them early, get them hooked, get them feeling that they’re doing something meaningful.”

Portsmouth CTE is growing and changing with the times

On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic hit CTE centers especially hard because, well, how do you braise a rack of ribs or repair a hole in an exhaust manifold over Zoom? 

On the other hand, CTE centers get wrenches thrown at them all the time. Because they work closely with industry and have less certain enrollment than traditional schools, they’re used to adapting with the times. 

Portsmouth High School students construct planter boxes designed by Portsmouth High School Career and Technical Center students.

“It’s amazing how much we got done last year,” said Courtney Ritchings, Director of the Portsmouth High School Career and Technical Center, which serves 350 to 500 students each year in six Seacoast area towns. “I think we pushed harder than ever.”

The Portsmouth planters project wasn’t the only success story from last year.

With funding through a cooperative partnership agreement with the state’s Bureau of Career Development, the Portsmouth center acquired an augmented virtual reality program called zSpace that allows students to perform a variety of hands-on tasks.

“It was a really wonderful opportunity,” Ritchings said. “You can take a heart off a screen and hold it in front of you.”

The center also added a new program — Health Science Technology — to its offerings, and increased its enrollment. 

Ritchings was especially happy to see a few students who might not otherwise have considered going to college taking advantage of classes that offer college credit. 

Another way the center is bringing in new students is by offering elective courses that allow students to explore trades without having to commit to the typical two-year program. “We’re trying to make CTE as accessible as possible to students,” Ritchings said.

Career paths in construction trades are taking new shapes

“Construction’s great and all, but my kid is going to college.” That’s the perception educators and industry professionals in the construction trades have been fighting for decades. Though the workforce shortage is still sizable, some experts see signs that the pendulum has finally started to swing back toward the trades. 

“Throughout the state we’ve actually seen a bit of an increase and a growing interest in some of the construction trades programs over the last five years,” said Jennifer Landon, Vice President of Education & Workforce Development for Associated Builders and Contractors of NH/VT and the state’s Construction Sector Advisor. She credits a variety of strategies:

  • Aligning education and industry

    When Landon was teaching in the ’90s, education and industry were largely siloed and often at odds. In recent years, they’ve seen the value of working together on initiatives such as work-based learning programs and partnerships that bring together stakeholders. “We’re seeing that shift unfold. We’re experiencing the success of industry and education working on the same page,” Landon said. 
One of more than 50 planter boxes designed and built by Portsmouth students.
  • Promoting women in the construction trades

Women make up just 10% of the construction workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the majority of them work in offices. As perceptions around gender roles continue to change, those numbers have started to budge. Between 2017-2018, the number of women in construction trades increased by more than 17%, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Programs and events such as Women in Construction week (the first week in March) are helping to continue moving the needle.

  • Providing career exploration opportunities

    Telling students about high-paying, fulfilling careers in the construction trades is a start, but giving them opportunities to roll up their sleeves and get to work is critical, Landon said. Those opportunities can take many forms. Students in the construction trades programs at Concord Regional Technical Center, for example, get to experience five different trades during their time there, while students in Pinkerton Academy’s program focus on residential and commercial construction. The opportunities aren’t limited to CTE centers either. Many schools around the state have expanded their Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) and work-based learning programs to give more students a chance to explore trades that interest them. 
  • Reinventing credential and degree programs

    This spring, Southern New Hampshire University graduated the first class in its new four-year Construction Management program. The school is reinventing the program to make it more experiential, project-based, and applicable to real-world learning. Students who graduate from the program do so with their OSHA 30 card and can be fast tracked into management careers on the construction pathway.

New ideas are also percolating at the high school level. Some CTE centers have begun offering pre-apprenticeship programs, “so that when students get hired, they already possess many key skills to prepare them for success in a registered apprenticeship,” Landon said. 

  • Changing the narrative

One of the most important aspects of connecting young people to construction trades pathways is addressing outdated notions of construction careers, Landon said. “We ask people to look around them. ‘Every building and every road that you see around you is all because of the talented women and men who chose to build their career in construction.’ ” she said. “We’re trying to get the word out that construction is a viable career option. Our mission is to shift the paradigm.”

About this series: This story is the first in a planned series highlighting solutions, success stories, and best practices at schools around the state. If you have a story you’d like to share, contact Sarah Earle at