ACE was formed in 1994 to introduce inner-city youth to careers in architecture, construction and engineering (ACE). In 2001, ENR’s Award of Excellence winner for championing ACE, Charles H. Thornton Jr., predicted there would be 15 or 20 sites by 2005 (ENR 4/23/2001 p. 30). But since 2000, ACE, born in New York City, has been on growth hormones, shooting up from nine active sites to 51, with another 10 under development. This year, there are 2,710 students enrolled in the after-school program nationwide, up from 810 in 2000. And there are 725 individual mentors, up from 260 in 2000.

With rapid-fire growth comes growing pains and ACE is in the throes of trying to manage its run-away success. "We’re not initiating new chapters unless it’s convenient," says Thornton, ACE chairman and co-chairman of the New York City structural firm Thornton-Tomasetti Group until Jan. 1, when he becomes a T-T consultant. "We’re focusing on getting or-ganized–on developing management systems, fiduciary controls and affiliate agreements," he adds. The "we" is the ACE National Board, formed in 2002.

Annual Ritual. New York City team presents its project to other teams. (Photo courtesy of ACE New York)

The program, which does not provide school credits, was created to pump fresh blood into a construction industry critically short on talent by guiding inner-city high schoolers toward the construction professions. The ACE model is founded on team mentoring provided by design and construction professionals. Mentors volunteer their time and talent.

The program also offers high school seniors college counseling and scholarships. To date, the various ACE sites have awarded $1.4 million in scholarships. Most of the money is raised locally through traditional methods including scholarship breakfasts, luncheons and dinners.

Thornton is pleased with ACE’s progress but has even bigger ideas. He says he is about to announce results of a fund-raising campaign that would provide $500,000 a year for three years to support a national staff in Washington, D.C. Next month, a search committee expects to begin interviewing six finalists for the job of executive director.


Thornton has two other pet projects in ACE. One is a university and college advisory board. The other is an initiative to get project owners to support ACE. "Owners and universities [stand to] benefit the most from ACE," says Thornton.

The goal of the college group is to actively recruit ACE graduates from around the U.S. into colleges. ACE Nashville is running a pilot program to determine best practices. Thornton hopes to get owners to require their construction teams to start and/or participate in ACE. "Owners could write a clause in their RFPs," says Thornton, who has model contract language for the asking.

ACE already has a "partnering" agreement with the U.S. General Services Administration, signed on Sept. 9 by Thornton and F. Joseph Moravec, commissioner of GSA’s Public Building Service. A pilot GSA-ACE team in Washington, D.C, is being formed for the groups’ "mutual benefit."

ACE National also is addressing the program’s growing pains. A governance plan will be considered this week by the members of the board.

The plan is designed to ensure the program adheres to its core mission; continues to serve the needs of the chapters, mentors and students; and is able to represent ACE to potential supporters, says Jeffrey M. Levy, a New York City-based consultant and the ACE National board member who chairs the governance committee. "In that way, as the program grows, we won’t lose its essence," says Levy.

Alive and Well

Models. ACE students model with candy. Thornton (below left), Moravec, ink model partnership. (Photo top courtesy of ACE Hartford, bottom courtesy of ACE)

At the grass-roots level, the spirit of volunteerism and giving back on which ACE was founded, is alive and well. One example is two-year-old Cincinnati ACE, with 28 students and 20 mentors. In addition to after-school team meetings, student projects, end-of-year presentations and scholarship awards, the fledgling group helps students find part-time and summer jobs in ACE fields. "That’s so they can earn money toward college," says Judi Cline-Kadetz, president of Target Marketing and ACE Cincinnati’s founder-executive director.

After only two years, ACE Cincinnati has a handful of success stories. One of them is Andrew Stroud. "Andrew was part of a gang and living on the streets after his parents threw him out," says Cline-Kadetz. But he decided to turn his life around, with help from ACE. Stroud just entered Cincinnati State Technical College as a construction management major and is working part-time for mentor-firm Turner Construction Co. Stroud also is helping ACE recruit students. "ACE helped me out," says Stroud. "I figured I should give back."

Mentor and ACE Cincinnati President Russ Alford, a Turner project executive, asked Stroud to help recruit. "Andrew has credibility," says Alford, "I’m a white male with blue eyes. I don’t look like I’ve suffered enough."

At the other end of the spectrum from Cincinnati is ACE New York City, with 250 students and 72 mentors on 10 teams. Winston Peters, a graduate of Canarsie High School, spent 1996-98 with ACE and then went on to graduate from Manhattan College in 2002 with a degree in civil engineering. He now is working as a field superintendent for Turner and, though he doesn’t know it, he soon will be asked to mentor in the ACE Yonkers chapter. "ACE was beneficial, for it gave me a better understanding of what I wanted to do," says Peters. "It gives students a broader outlook."

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Peters and many other ACE graduates also praise the mentors, calling them knowledgeable, dedicated and supportive. The mentors in turn congratulate the students. They talk about the rewards of aiding youngsters, many of whom have only seen despair in their short lives.

St. Louis ACE, born last January, offers a recipe for any community considering starting an ACE chapter: "Use the Charlie Thornton method–find a champion, put your nose to the grindstone and get it done for the kids."

fter a decade, there still are not a million ACE Mentor Program Inc. success stories in the nation. But if construction industry leaders of the fast-growing outreach program for high-schoolers have their way, there will be thousands upon thousands of them in the not-too-distant future.