Dec 25, 2023

Thermopolis Teachers Couldn't Find Housing, So Students Are Building It

THERMOPOLIS — Small-towners have pluck and aren’t afraid to use it.

That’s the idea behind the six new housing units between Hot Springs State Park and the local school district’s bus garage.

They’re now just open boxes, but soon the units will be short-term homes for new teachers starting out in Thermopolis, a small Wyoming town of about 2,700 people with high tourist appeal.

Thermopolis has hot springs swimming pools, a river, mountain bike trails and spicy hot wings. But it lacks teachers.

So the Hot Springs County School District is building housing units to rent out to newcomer teachers at market value for up to three years so they can teach children while keeping an eye on the real estate market.

The three duplexes, each outlined for two roughly 1,500-square-foot apartments, should all be complete in about a year, with the earliest apartment completion slated for this Thanksgiving.

One is a two-bedroom, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant apartment for handicapped access. Others will have three bedrooms.

The district is having its own students help with the project.

Summer Jobs

Zane Stam, a Hot Springs County High School junior and quarterback of the football team, has been working on the new “teacherage” for about two months, along with his classmate Jarek Jeffs, a senior. The school district hired both to help with the job this summer.

Stam reclined briefly on a propped ladder Thursday as he and the other workers waited for a concrete pump truck to level its hose over the wall frame.

The product of a ranching family, he’s no stranger to work, but said he was a little surprised at all the minutiae in a construction job.

“There’s a lot of little things you’ve got to put a lot of effort into for this project to work well in the end,” said Stam. “We spent three hours just making sure the surface of the Styrofoam was level for the concrete.”

Everything had to be perfect, said Jared Jeffs, who is the school district’s maintenance director and Jarek Jeffs’ father.

Jared Jeffs is overseeing the project. He emphasized, however, that the superintendent and other district leadership had a vision for it long before he started at his maintenance position in December.

‘Grew Up Doing This Stuff’

As for the director’s son, Jarek Jeffs has been working on construction sites with his dad since he was 10 years old.

His father was a general contractor for years before becoming the district’s maintenance director.

“I just grew up doing this stuff,” said Jarek Jeffs. His favorite steps are the most visible: when the frames come up; when the rooms take shape.

“I like to frame because you’re able to see the work being done. It’s not just like, invisible,” said the teen.

Foundations are different, Jarek added. The workers pour hard labor and precise thinking into the crucial building base, but it just looks like a beginning.

“It’s a lot of shoveling and making everything level,” said Jarek.

Both Jarek Jeffs and Stam are saving their summer pay up for college. Stam wants to train to be a football scout. Jeffs isn’t sure what he’d like to do yet, but he’s thinking college will be a part of it, he said.

And the job pay is decent.

Legacy Piece

Stam and Jarek Jeffs were the only students on the job site Thursday, but in the fall when school starts, a whole class will convene there.

The school has offered education in trades for years, Dustin Hunt, Hot Springs County School District Superintendent, told Cowboy State Daily. This year the trades class is headed out to help build the duplexes.

“Kids learn everything from tape and texture — all those pieces they can apply,” said Hunt. “We’re looking forward to that being part of our project, because then they can apply it to a job site and not just in their classes.”

A math teacher who works with the trades classes is even poised to apply mathematics concepts to the job.

Hunt said he’s excited to see the students’ work go into something lasting: “A legacy piece for this district.”

The district will hire specialists too, to do the plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, said Hunt.

ESSER funds, which are COVID-19-related school grants, are paying for the project cost, which is about $1.2 million, said Hunt.

He said he hopes the duplexes under the rugged red-faced hills and overlooking the little town will be a new teacher magnet in an already-appealing region.

The sooner the better, he said: “We’re about to face the largest teacher shortage there’s ever been, I think.”

Universities haven’t seen as many education students lately, Hunt added, and education nationally is fraught with controversy, driving down interest in the profession.

There’s That Mist

Housing costs spiked after the pandemic, and apartments vanished from the market as their owners decided to turn them into Airbnb rentals, Hunt said.

Combine these factors with the worsening teacher shortage, and the school district has tallied up several job openings.

“It’s our first teacherage, and it’s definitely in response to just the needs of all our young teachers,” said Hunt. “Visiting with them over the last couple years, we’ve always had what I’d consider a shortage of housing, but since the pandemic, it’s become that much greater. And I’m sure we’re not the only ones.”

Gary Sigmund, a school bus aid lending his construction skills to the project, said he knows of about three teachers who left Thermopolis just as they were settling in to their new jobs. They couldn’t find housing.

Sigmund also works as an EMT.

He’s not the only jack-of-all-trades the district has conscripted.

Steven Cable and Chris Dietz, both custodians and Hot Springs High graduates, were on the site Thursday following the hose around the new wall, troweling concrete into a seamless grey surface as clouds of the same color congealed overhead.

“I’m enjoying it a lot more now that we’ve got cloud cover,” mused Dietz. Rain misted downward.

It had been a while since Dietz worked with kids, he said, but the two teens are quick learners.

Waste Not

Cable agreed with Dietz that the teens are quick learners. And as for Cable, he’s a master welder whose skills have helped the crew minimize waste.

Two 1950s- and 1970s-era storage buildings occupied the sky-swept plateau where the teacherage is growing, but the workers had a crane come and take the buildings apart. The concrete blocks that made up the old buildings are now a retaining wall for the plateau’s edge.

The workers stripped the metal off the old buildings and are building a car port from it.

And Cable fabricated a new steel door opening so the district could reuse a door structure elsewhere.

Jared Jeffs boasted about Cable and the other workers Thursday during a lull between concrete pours. Other teachers and paraprofessionals have also pitched in on various projects, Jeffs added.

“People have got more talents than what you think,” he said. “Everybody here’s got a high IQ for things in general.”

Besides that, said Jeffs, small towns demand it. Everyone has to roll up their sleeves, everyone has to know how to handle various crises when there are fewer people and not many specialists.

“I think we’re unique,” Jeffs said. “But small towns in general. You just gotta know more things.”

Clair McFarland can be reached at [email protected].

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Summer Jobs‘Grew Up Doing This Stuff’ Legacy Piece There’s That Mist Waste Not