Auto shop

Petaluma High School’s Auto Shop Provides a Pathway to Employment

In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt was in his third term as president, Joe DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak, “Citizen Kane” was created, and following an attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the United States was drawn into World War II.

That same year, at Petaluma High School, an auto shop program became part of the curriculum, although some believe a class had been in the school since the 1920s.

Last year, several alumni of the program worried about its future. The high school offers several types of vocational/technical or vocational education courses. And while this allows students to learn a variety of real-world skills, it also limits both the number of students in classes and the number of classes available to instructors.

Enrollment was low and a teacher was needed.

On Valentine’s Day 2017, Stephen Blume, 38, owner of Accu-Line Brake & Wheel, learned that the auto shop program was in jeopardy.

Keith Benson, 37, a member of a group dedicated to saving the auto shop program, posted the information on Facebook.

“Ten to 12 people showed up at the school board meeting,” Benson said, “although the topic wasn’t about the role.”

When the board held a subsequent meeting on the future of the class, “30 to 40 supporters came,” Benson said. Classes have been restored.

A separate meeting was held at the workshop with industry leaders to discuss how to improve courses and develop a realistic future plan. Petaluma High School has returned automotive shop classes to the curriculum for the 2017-2018 school year and hired a new teacher.

When the teacher quit mid-year, Fred Brunton, who had taught the class from 1976 to 2015, stepped in to finish and is still teaching.

Currently, enough students for three classes are registered for next year and the group hopes to muster enough to fill a full class schedule in the future.

Petaluma High offers a variety of trade classes in addition to the auto shop, such as agricultural mechanics, engineering, floral design, metal shop and carpentry shop, as well as welding.

“We’re not really going to certify a (student) directly,” Petaluma High School Principal David Stirrat said. “We just want to give them a taste.”

Genuine automotive technology certification could be obtained, for example, at Santa Rosa Junior College.

There is a growing awareness of the importance of high school trades courses. A three-year study by the National Vocational Education Assessment found not only that students who took vocational courses in high school saw their academic performance improve, but that the same students had higher incomes than their peers who had not taken such courses.

“A lot of schools,” Blume said, “the only thing they’re interested in is a four-year degree, and there are students who go through school unknowingly.”

Benson emphasized that the auto shop isn’t just about cars.

“A car,” he said, “is a series of systems: HVAC, electrical, grid, mechanical, physical hydraulic principles, aerodynamics. There are so many things that can apply outside the car. ‘automobile industry.

Not to mention the work ethic, business principles, work organization and whether trades are lucrative – and hiring.

“If you’re in trades right now,” Benson said, “and you quit or get fired, by the time you get to the aisle, you might have another job.

“If you’ve only done one year of auto shop, you can get a job. The minimum wage for a mechanic is $22 an hour, with their own tools. In the area between Marin and San Jose, if you’re an average mechanic, you should be making over $100,000 a year, and the manufacturers will pay to train you.

He said there were 50 auto companies in Petaluma, and Santa Rosa probably had double that.

“For every person entering the industry, they say 15 people retire.”

“There are a lot of good things about this program,” Blume said, “and I think it would help parents know that this option was available. I knew kids who might not have gone to high school s they had not taken these courses.

Tara Sager, 34, attended a school without an auto shop. She supports the program, but regrets not having had the opportunity herself.

“From a female perspective, I would like to know how to change my oil, change a tire on the side of the road,” she said. “It’s safety and a life skill.”

“It’s not just women,” Blume said, “a lot of men are just as clueless. I try to explain things and they have no idea what works and how. Another day a customer had his car towed and I asked if he had changed his oil, he admitted he hadn’t, it destroyed his engine.

“All of us who work on cars,” Blume said, “are also do-it-yourselfers. We learned other things: plumbing, electrical.

What they learned in the auto shop gave them the confidence to learn other skills.

Dan Dickinson, 42, was one of those students who took classes because he could go to the auto shop.

“I was not a good student of English,” he said. “But a few years ago my English teacher waved at me and asked if I could help him with his car.”