Woodworking is important art for COMPASS youths


Gazette Photo by John Swan Two COMPASS students prepare a cabinet door as of an off-campus woodworking program at the Eliot School. In the background are Eliot School instructor Charlie Sandler (left) and COMPASS vacational teacher Mundo Aguero.

Fall classes start soon at Eliot School

PONDSIDE—Outside, it’s a sunny summer afternoon, the kind that tempts people to head for the beach. Inside the Eliot School, 16-year-old Jonathan is carefully sanding the edges of a large bookcase he is making for the COMPASS School, where he is a student.

Nearby, Eddie, 15, is attaching a hinge to the door of a storage cabinet. Like the bookcase, it will be used at COMPASS.

During the summer, Jonathan, Eddie and their classmates go twice a week to the Eliot School for Fine and Applied Arts on Eliot Street, not far from the Monument, for woodworking classes that continue through the school year.

The teacher, Charlie Sandler, also superintendent of the school, guides the students through the process of building functional pieces they can take pride in.

“There’s never too much sanding,” Sandler encourages Jonathan. “You don’t put soap on the screw. It won’t go in,” he reminds Eddie.

Sandler has been teaching woodworking at the Eliot School for 40 years. He knows how to guide, encourage and explain—skills honed over his 36 years as a special education and vocational teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

“He shows us how to use adult tools,” Jonathan says. “He always has different projects for us.”

Before working on the bookcase, Jonathan made a stool and tables. Today he wears his Red Sox cap backwards, and a pair of safety glasses protect his eyes. He works carefully. The shelves of the bookcase are notched and slotted into the sides, the nails invisible, the surfaces sanded smooth.

Eddie has been working with Sandler for months. His finished projects include a stool, a coffee table and, best of all, a TV stand in use at his home in Roxbury. What does Eddie like best about woodworking? “The power tools. They’re cool.”

“Sometimes you reach a kid,” Sandler says. His goal is to instill a sense of worth in his students. “The project is nothing. The process is what’s important—the ability to take orders, to follow instructions.” Speaking about his COMPASS students, Sandler says, “They’re good kids. The key is to keep them busy. They look for praise and rewards.”

COMPASS is a community-based, private, special-needs day school located in Hyde Square serving students, grades K-12, referred from schools in Boston, Cambridge and the suburbs. The COMPASS population has learning disabilities, with needs ranging from cognitive deficits to behavioral and psychological issues. Many students have suffered trauma, and all need to feel more confident. Since its founding in 1974, COMPASS has educated, counseled and guided over 10,000 children, adolescents and parents/guardians.

Mundo Aguero, a vocational teacher at COMPASS who accompanies the students to their Eliot School classes, sees many benefits of the woodworking program. “Kids learn the concept of working towards something. They have difficulty seeing the big picture.” The concrete products, desks, cabinets, tables and bookcases are used every day at the school. “Kids can look at these and say, ‘Hey, I did that.’”

According to Jeff Heller, an administrator at COMPASS, the classes at the Eliot School “provide concrete, hands-on learning. Students here can experience a level of mastery and accomplishment.”

Commenting on Sandler’s approach to the COMPASS students, Heller says, “Charlie has a remarkable level of tolerance. He’s a big-hearted guy.”

The Eliot School will honor Sandler at its fall open house on Sept. 15. [See Happenings.] The longest-running continuing teacher there, he holds down the long-term memory of the school.

“Charlie is not only a superb teacher, he is also the heart and soul of the Eliot School,” said Paul Levy, chief executive officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a long-time student at the school. “He is always available to help students, and he inevitably does so with kindness and good humor.”

The Eliot School

The partnership between COMPASS and the Eliot School over the past five years is a modern variation on an old tradition.

Founded in 1676, The Eliot School was supported by area farmers and educated local children. In 1689, Rev. John Eliot, “Minister to the Indians,” gave 75 acres, stipulating that the proceeds were to be used in teaching colonial children together with African and Indian children, “to remove the inconvenience of ignorance.”

By the late 1800s the school focused on manual training, adding classes in drawing, painting, sewing and cooking, and providing classes for public school students in the area. Today the school offers classes for children and adults in fine and applied arts, from woodworking, upholstery and sewing to painting, drawing and printmaking.

The fall semester will bring over a dozen new art, wood and sewing courses to the Eliot School. [See Happenings.] New classes for children and adults, ranging from one to 12 sessions, take place from Sept. 22 through December. For more information and a catalog, see www.eliotschool.org.

The writer is a volunteer with the Eliot School.

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