School marks evolution across 125 years

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The North Bennet Street School in Boston has grown from a small cabinetry program to a premier woodworking institution

North Bennet president Miguel Gomez-Ibanez, right, confers with a student in the school's bench room.

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The North Bennet Street School in Boston is celebrating its 125th anniversary. One of the country's premier woodworking schools, North Bennet offers a two-year, full-time cabinet and furniture making program among a diversity of other professional trade programs.

Founded in the 1880s, cabinetry was originally the only program offered at the school, and, at the time, it was geared toward children. In 1889, the school opened its doors to adults so they could seek gainful employment or teach others the woodworking trade.

Today, emerging woodworkers enrolled in the program will learn everything from the skillful use of hand tools and power equipment to effective ways of owning and maintaining a business. Everyone is welcome to apply. About a quarter of the applicants get turned down annually, but can reapply if they demonstrate their dedication.

"What we teach is the woodworking; we don't teach the commitment," says North Bennet president Miguel Gomez-Ibanez, a 1999 graduate of the school.

Gomez-Ibanez was formerly a practicing architect who initially became attracted to North Bennet in 1997 after seeing an exhibition of student work at the Boston Architectural Center. At the age of 47, he sold his Boston-based architectural business and enrolled.

Cabinetry students learn by making period furniture, which embodies the highest levels of joinery, precision and accuracy, says Gomez-Ibanez. The demand for period-style furniture in today's marketplace is irrelevant, as students can take their hand skills and do what they want with them.

North Bennet is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Therefore, students who attend are eligible to receive federal grants and loans to help pay for their tuition.

"Tuition is about $16,000 for the year, lower than many schools, but we're still concerned it stretches peoples' financial ability. We've been working very hard over the past couple of years to raise scholarship funds so we can provide financial aid directly to students in addition to the loans and grants that are available through the government," says Gomez-Ibanez.

The accreditation also assures the school maintains its high teaching standards so students are able to earn a living with those skills. The ACCSC requires that 75 percent of graduates find employment in their field of study within a year, which is verified by the school's annual graduation and placement reports.

"Our admissions process is geared to doing professional training. If we were turning out hobbyists, we'd lose our accreditation. But our placement is more than the requirement - it's about 85 percent - so we're not worried about that."

Enrollment in the cabinetry program has been steady for the last 20 years with an average of 40 students. There are four faculty members in the cabinetry department, easily meeting the school-wide student-to-teacher ratio of 12 to 1. A part-time, non-accredited cabinetry program is also offered for skill enhancement.

One former student, John LaGatutta of Torrington, Conn., is a typical example of a North Bennet success story. LaGatutta makes reproduction furniture and has successfully grown his business during the last two decades.

"North Bennet provided me with the best fundamental woodworking skills to go out and be successful in my trade. In the late '80s, when I attended, there was very little in the way of publications and outlets for learning the trade. Even the market for reproductions was distained by the very people who could afford our services," says LaGatutta.

The Concord Museum in Concord, Mass., is marking the school's 125th anniversary with an exhibition of alumni work through March 21. Meanwhile, the school's cabinetry department is expanding its workshop program to include evening and weekend courses for beginners and experts.

The school also offers full-time professional programs on bookbinding, carpentry, jewelry making and repair, locksmithing, piano technology, preservation carpentry, and violin making and repair.

Contact: North Bennet Street School, 39 North Bennet St., Boston, MA. 02113. Tel: 617-227-0155. www.nbss.org

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.

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