When the morning bell rings at Myers Park High, 16 girls are in the auto shop at the back of campus, ready to pop hoods and get under chassis.
“If you don’t get your hands dirty, you’re not doing it right,” exclaims 17-year-old Miley Chavez, who dreams of opening her own garage and calling it The Lady Wrenchers.
Myers Park High, nestled in one of Charlotte’s most prestigious neighborhoods, is best known for producing International Baccalaureate graduates who compete for top scholarships and Ivy League schools.
But the burgeoning auto shop – the girls-only introductory class is the latest addition – illustrates a crucial part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools strategy: All schools should offer pathways to practical careers as well as to the university. And these technical career courses should try to attract students who would not traditionally enroll.
The women are underrepresented in the automotive trades, some of which are in high demand in Charlotte. And as founder of Girls car clinic wrote in the Washington Postthey often dread going to male-dominated auto shops, where a study has shown they could face higher bills.
Kristina Carlevatti, who taught automobile lessons at Myers Park for six years, hopes to make young women more confident about their own cars and set them on a career path. She had thought that his presence might encourage girls to sign up.
She traces her own interest back to her teenage years, when she snapped a serpentine belt on her Jeep Wrangler while doing donuts in the snow. Rather than face her dad’s disapproval, she read, bought a $14 replacement belt, and did the repair herself. Now she’s certified to teach pre-engineering technical education — and yes, she was part of a distinct minority who took automotive classes in college.
But while Carlevatti increased enrollment to the point that his classes had waiting lists, the overwhelming majority of his students were still male. This semester, Myers Park hired a second automotive teacher, and Carlevatti added the all-girls class.
Evelyn Harris, a 17-year-old junior, says she’s always been interested in how cars work, but was hesitant to enroll in a typical course. “Guys tend to think they know it all,” she said. In the girls’ class, she is comfortable learning to use tools, do auto inspections, and check brakes.
“Actually, I want to make it my job,” she said.
Carlevatti is eager to see young women like Harris enroll in more advanced courses, which won’t be segregated by gender. Once they’ve mastered the basics, they’re likely to have more confidence, she says – and find that a lot of boys don’t come with a lot of automotive experience either.
The expansion of vocational and technical education, often abbreviated as CTE, has not captured CMS’s attention as much as the emphasis on university magnet programs. But it’s a critical part of meeting the state’s mandate to prepare graduates for careers and college.
Myers Park is one of six of the district’s 18 neighborhood high schools that offer an automotive program; Independence will join the list next year. Myers Park will add a STEM academy that offers courses in computer programming, engineering, and biomedical.
CTE students who complete a four-course path and take the ACT WorkKeys exams can leave high school with references for immediate employment. But many CTE students are college-bound, sometimes using their high school skills to earn money while pursuing two- or four-year degrees.
Carlevatti says more of his students go into engineering than directly to work in auto shops. But she’s proud to have recently placed two students in part-time jobs doing state inspections while they graduate from high school. His shop is licensed to do vehicle inspections in North Carolina, and the school will pay for students who are old enough to be certified.
The new generation of female students is also exposed to the fun side of auto mechanics. Myers Park students, male and female, rebuild an engine for a donated 1977 Chevy pickup truck they will race in”24 hours of lemons“, an endurance race for clunkers to be held in Kershaw, SC, in April. Students will serve as drivers, pit crew and cheer section. Last year, Carlevatti said his group was the only team in high school.
Even if they’re not pursuing automotive careers, Carelvatti says she’s excited to see young women grease their hands and learn skills that, at the very least, will make them smarter with their own cars.
“Just being able to use their hands and use their minds, brainstorming and troubleshooting, is going to be huge for them,” she said.
This story was originally published March 6, 2018 11:25 a.m.