Vancouver teacher wins $100K award for teaching construction, inspiring teens

Evergreen High School construction teacher Bill Culver got called down to his principal’s office on Tuesday morning, supposedly because of some glitch in an online training course he’d completed.

It was a rush to lure Culver to a surprise announcement: the Vancouver teacher was one of five educators across the country to win a $100,000 prize from Harbor Freight for excellence in teaching skilled trades.

In his 40 years with the district, Culver has taught upwards of 7,000 students and other instructors in the trades, said Justin Birmingham, Evergreen’s college career technical education director.

“He does a stellar job establishing the kind of rapport and trusted relationships with kids and adults that moves learning forward,” Birmingham said. “He’s just a nice guy.”

Harbor Freight gave $1.25 million in cash awards to 20 skilled trades teachers across the country, selected from a pool of 768 applicants this year. Only five won the $100,000 award, including Culver and Cory Torppa, a construction teacher at Washington’s Kalama High School.

Cory Torppa

Cory Torppa, a construction and manufacturing teacher at Kalama High School, poses with a check on Tuesday after learning he’d won $100,000 from Harbor Freight. Torppa was one of five top award winners around the country, joining fellow Washington teacher Bill Culver who teaches construction trades at Vancouver’s Evergreen High.Photo Courtesy of Harbor Freight

Culver started teaching career and technical education classes in the Evergreen School District after graduating from the Washington State University’s college of education and industrial arts. He’s spent the last 22 years at Evergreen High, where he co-teaches a Geometry in Construction course alongside a math teacher. Students earn math and CTE credits while they apply their new geometry skills immediately to a home-building project.

“So many times, kids say ‘When are we ever going to use this?’ We show them first-hand,” Culver said. “That motivates and excites me, because it allows me to have a hand in hopefully opening the eyes of kids to see how this stuff works in a real and practical way. It’s not just a hoop to jump through, it’s actually great preparation for whatever you choose to do in your life.”

Students have in the past built homes for low-income families through Habitat for Humanity. Culver said the program is currently establishing a partnership with a different nonprofit that provides tiny homes for families in crisis, giving them a place to stay while they get back on their feet.

“That’s an important aspect of the curriculum, to try and get the kids involved in looking beyond themselves. How can you be a positive impact to the community?” Culver said.

Harbor Freight divides the prize money between the teacher and the school, but Culver is donating his entire award to the district’s foundation, Birmingham said. The money will go toward equipment at a new Skilled Trades Center the district is building at Evergreen High, a 7,500 square-foot facility that will house a construction site for the tiny homes and allow the school to expand construction classes into areas like electrical and plumbing and HVAC. Birmingham said the prize money will also help fund internships and scholarships for students who pursue educational opportunities in the trades.

Culver also advises Evergreen students who compete at SkillsUSA, a national career technical competition that rewards leadership and technical skills in fields from carpentry to first aid. Culver likes to watch his students improve from year to year and has sent several students to state and national championships.

“It’s just fun to see that growth and that desire – that they want to learn and they want to get better,” Culver said. “It’s a really neat feeling.”

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Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregonian. You can reach her at or (503) 260-3430.

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