The Berkshire School is a co-ed boarding and day college preparatory school for students in grades nine to 12 and post-graduates. The 400-acre campus is tucked away at the heart of the Berkshire Hills —stationed at the base of Mount Everett in Sheffield, MA. The area is a popular tourist destination for world-renowned arts and culture, health and wellness retreats, antiquing and spectacular nature, including the Appalachian Trail, which is a short hike from campus. For one week every winter, Berkshire students participate in two unique intensive courses of their choosing, taught by faculty, staff, parents, alumni, friends and other students. “The Pro Vita Winter Session is focused on the “Make. Perform. Do. Solve. Serve.” model, in which students explore courses within the areas of art and design, sustainability, philanthropy, diversity and sense of place,” according to a statement from the school. As a way to give back to his alma mater, Buddy Ontra of Ontra Stone Concepts in Bridgeport, CT, partnered with Kurt Bartzsch of Rock Solid Marble & Granite in Sheffield, MA, last year to teach several students how to fabricate a new stone countertop for their student lounge.
According to the Berkshire School, the goal of the Pro Vita program is for students to have the opportunity to explore the larger world around them and to embrace the school motto: Pro Vita Non Pro Schola Discimus, “Learning — not just for school but for life.” Pro Vita offers more than 50 courses, a lunchtime workshop series, several site-based excursions and various guest speakers, which allow students to uncover new talents and discover lifelong pursuits. Donald Anselmi is the director of Pro Vita, while Su-Lin DelGuercio was the faculty advisor to Ontra and the “Stone Fabrication 101” course.
Ontra, a 1981 graduate of the school, owns a stone fabrication shop in Bridgeport, CT. “We tried for about five years to work out the logistics,” he said. “Kurt opening up a new shop nearby helped. The goal was to replace the Corian countertop at ‘Shawn’s Place,’ which is the student lounge/snack bar. Marble and Granite Inc. donated a slab of Steel Gray granite.”
Each day was a two-hour-long session, explained Ontra. “On the first day, we showed the Natural Stone Institute’s video ‘Quarry to Kitchen’,” he said. “We handed out protective gear and a tape measure, and talked about safety, and showed a video on safety.”
In total, six students – four boys (Kevin, Billy, Jacob and Henry) and two girls (Annie and Paloma) – signed up for the class. They were a mix of sophomores, juniors and seniors. “We asked them why they chose this class,” said Ontra. “One of them responded that they never had a chance to work with his hands. He never held a power tool. Another said he wanted to leave a lasting mark at the school.” On day one, the students also templated – both manually and digitally, said Ontra.
Bartzsch also mentioned how the student who said he had never worked with his hands stood out to him. “In the beginning, he was very tentative to do anything — especially when it came to polishing the stone with a pneumatic air polisher and diamond pads,” he said. “However, as the week went on, he got more and more into ‘doing’ everything, and was the student who seemed the most interested in the entire process. He took it the most serious and even stayed late the last day to finish up. That was nice to see.”
During the second day of the program, the students were transported by bus to Rock Solid Marble & Granite’s fabrication shop. “The countertop consisted of three pieces,” said Ontra. “Two students were assigned to each piece. We cut it on a Sierra bridge saw. Each had the opportunity to press the buttons and operate the saw with supervision.”
The students had the opportunity to feel like real shop workers by wearing PPE such as eye and ear protection, boots and aprons. On the third day, they did wet polishing. “We also had them cutting a 4- x 4-inch inside corner on a remnant just to show them it’s not only polishing,” said Ontra. “We had them do other fabrication tasks one at a time with Kurt and I helping them.”
The next day the students sealed the new granite countertop. Ontra explained that one piece had notches on it so it was epoxy filled. On this day, the students went to Rock Solid Marble & Granite’s new shop and were showed a Saber CNC saw and in-line polisher. “They watched the saw cut out a vanity with three backsplashes in about 30 minutes,” said Ontra. “They were like ‘we did all that work for three days and there was this fancy machine.’”
The final day was installation day, and despite a blizzard, Rock Solid Marble & Granite’s installation crew arrived at the school. One of the countertop’s pieces was more than 10 feet long. “One area had a seam, so they took turns working it,” said Ontra.
At the end of Pro Vita week, the students appreciated the fruits of their labor. “The Pro Vita classes were held every day from 1 to 3 p.m.,” explained Ontra. “At 3:30 p.m. they had to be at athletic activities. On the last day, one student, the young man who said he’d never held a tool, asked for a pass to stay and finish. We’re going to put a plaque with the students’ name sandblasted on it.”
Bartzsch explained that he got involved at Ontra’s request to use his shop since it is located five minutes away from Berkshire School. “Buddy and I are acquaintances from about 20 years ago when the company I worked for bought stone from the company he worked for,” he said. “We reconnected after we both started fabrication shops and have been good friends since — seeing each other at the various trade shows and workshops. We had talked a few years ago about doing this project together, and I was happy to make our shop available. After the week was over, it was quite rewarding to have the students in our shop and show what can be done with a rock. It was nice to meet the students and faculty and get to know them, and have a hand in such an interesting week such as Pro Vita week at Berkshire School. I would definitely do it again.”
According to Ontra, it was visits to the Berkshire School for alumni weekends where he discussed the idea of teaching a fabrication class with the school’s administration. “I thought this would be out-of-the box,” he said. “Something different. Definitely not ‘preppy.’”