As the thump, thump, thump of beanbags hitting wooden boards echoed through the gym at Innovation Central High School, Kyle Jelens smiled.

Surrounded by almost 100 cornhole players, Jelens, in a bright, fluorescent safety vest, knew the terrific turnout for this tournament was going to be a big benefit to his 40 scholars in the Academy of Design and Construction at Innovation Central, one of five distinctive academy programs at the school designed to prepare scholars for life after high school.

Jelens has been at the high school for 10 years and is the lead teacher in the Academy of Design and Construction.

“I went into teaching right out of Grand Valley State University,” he said. “I knew it was my passion to help people improve their lives through education. I have worked in residential construction since I was a kid every summer and on weekends. I love improving buildings and making spaces beautiful and organized. Teaching trades was the perfect fit for me.”

And the cornhole tournament, he added, is the perfect fit for his scholars who built not only all of the boards that were used but also the bags and the various tournament trophies!

The work began already this past spring, Jelens said.

Scholars worked on the cornhole boards and bags when they could as they also spent a lot of class hours building houses with Habitat for Humanity Kent and creating wood crafts for classrooms, including shelves, stools, cabinets and artwork.

Jelens noted that while he assisted with construction and assembly, management and directing the student work in each phase, Innovation Central teachers Joe Reed (design and construction of the boards and drink holders, plus laser engraving), Carol Brookens (sewing and teaching students and staff how to properly make bean bags) and Dagoberto Alvarado (finish decals, paint touches and hardware adjustments) were all instrumental to the effort.

“The preparation was a very large team effort,” he said. “I can't even begin to add up the hours that the scholars and adults put in to make this event so successful.”

He also praised the Academy of Design and Construction Advisory Committee which handled most of the marketing and sponsorship work.

Advisory Board chair Nancy Stellini, the Human Resources Director for Triangle Construction, was at the event and said it was incredibly gratifying to see the turnout for the tournament: 46 two-player teams, all folks connected to the construction, engineering and design industries.

“It’s humbling to see this many people out here to support the Academy,” she said with a broad smile. “It’s so good for this school and so good for the industry.”

Stellini said serving on the Advisory Committee has been a positive experience for her.

“It’s an opportunity to really influence lives and have an impact,” she said.

Fellow Advisory Committee member Jen Schottke, President of the West Michigan Construction Institute and a member of the Grand Rapids Board of Education, agreed.

“I never finished my college degree,” she said. “But when I got into the construction industry, I met a whole lot of people who were just like me. That’s why I love this program (at Innovation Central). It creates futures for scholars. It creates joy for scholars who get to look at something and say, ‘I built that.’ What could be better.”

In previous years, Schottke said, the fundraiser has been a basketball tournament, so the switch to cornhole in 2022 meant a lot of work for Jelens, his colleagues and his scholars.

But the big turnout was likely to lead to $10,000 or more in funds raised, money that will be used for tools and equipment for the wood shop, including safe stop saws and dust collection systems, as well as for scholarships to support scholars beyond graduation. 

The 40 scholars in the Academy of Design and Construction are in grades 9-12. The ninth-grade scholars take an Introduction to Design and Construction class and get an overview of all the trades and skills with an emphasis on safety and exploration. The next year, scholars dive deeper into the careers of design and construction and choose the pathway they prefer.

Grades 11 and 12 include the design-focused class with Reed or the construction-focused class with Jelens and also include a lot of collaboration where the design students draw and draft digital design and the construction students create the projects.

Beyond that, Jelens added, scholars and staff spend time every week engaging in social-emotional learning to understand themselves and improve relationship skills.

“I love building relationships with people,” he said. “And as a staff, we love helping scholars find satisfaction by identifying and developing their skills and interests through field trips, job shadows and work-based learning. Teenagers are mostly undecided as to their future career, and by networking with local companies like the ones at the cornhole tournament, we can help them find clarity and comfort with choosing the right path that suits their skills and interests.”

As he walked around the gym and interacted with competitors, his scholars and more, Jelens admitted he was a little overwhelmed.

“This is just amazing,” he said. “It makes me feel so grateful for all of the people supporting the Academy.”

Former student Nolan Pelfrey, a 2017 graduate, agreed. He was at the cornhole tournament in 2022 as a competitor, having used his degree from Innovation Central as a springboard to a job as a foreman for Erhardt Construction. He recalled his student days fondly.

“The Academy helped me in so many ways,” he said. “It challenged me, it allowed me to mentor some of the younger students and show them the ropes – which is similar to what I do now as a foreman – and it really helped me quickly advance my skills in so many areas. This place is a huge part of where I am today.”