by Nicole Sweeney
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
RACINE, WI — Alex Kosterman, Kevin Bendorf and Matt Beier hunched over the shiny red Pontiac Sunfire, carefully inspecting the car’s leaky battery before cleaning it up and replacing it.
The hands-on lesson on starting systems and batteries took place Tuesday in Racine, Wis.-based Park High School’s new automotive technology center, a 5,000-square-foot dream for the school’s automotive students. Although students have been busy putting the new digs to use since November, the center’s official grand opening is March 7.
“The kids and I all think we’ve died and gone to heaven,” automotive instructor David Dixon said. “I’ve got to believe we’re one of the top five auto shops in the state.”
The new facility was paid for through a $500,000 referendum proposal that voters approved in 2001.
The investment bucks a national trend, as more and more high school auto shops are stalling despite a huge demand for skilled auto technicians. The most common roadblocks: the hefty cost of running automotive programs and a more intense focus on college preparatory classes.
High school auto shops have gotten short shrift in recent years, said Pat Johnson, spokeswoman for Automotive Youth Educational Systems, a Troy, Mich.-based non-profit organization that helps students prepare for automotive careers.
Many parents and educators equate four-year college degrees with success, “and the students who aren’t heading in that direction are usually the afterthoughts,” Johnson said.
But Park High School’s program is thriving, and enrollment in automotive classes is on the rise. More than 60 students use the auto shop each year, and the apprenticeship program draws students from three other local high schools.
Students say the gleaming new facility has helped boost the automotive program’s popularity.
“Since we’ve got the new shop, more kids have found out about it,” Kosterman said.
Students say it’s a big step up from the cramped quarters of the old automotive classroom, which was jammed with eight cars, tables and chairs and various other furniture.
“It’s like day and night,” Dixon said. “We have room all the way around the cars.”
The extra room has also allowed the beginning automotive class to branch out into marine engines, motorcycles, snowmobiles and other vehicles.
The new shop features three vehicle lifts, which were paid for with a $10,000 donation from Roger Palmen’s Chevrolet dealership in Union Grove and Palmen’s family. In the past, students had to use floor jacks to hoist the cars.
“You had to find the skinniest guys to crawl under the car because you couldn’t fit,” Kosterman said.
Students aren’t working on rusted clunkers, either. The auto shop’s donated cars range from 1997 to 2001 models.
The school offers an introductory power mechanics class, a capstone automotive class and an advanced apprenticeship program, which allows students to work for local dealerships in the afternoons.
“The real key to making this work is to get them out and working with a master technician,” Dixon said.
But not everyone in the auto shop is a mechanic-in-training.
“I wanted to know how everything works — how one thing sets off another,” said Beier, a junior.
“I just wanted to take this in case my car breaks down,” said Umer Awan, a junior. “I didn’t want to take my car to a mechanic when I could do this myself.”
Copyright 2004 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.
Click here to view the rest of today’s headlines.