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Zarate’s 135 students (spread through five classes) alternate between two weeks in the classroom and two weeks in the shop facility, performing such tasks as removing and replacing damaged panels; pulling, measuring, cutting, and welding damaged automotive structural parts; and preparing vehicles for new paint jobs.

“Some students who fall behind end up in my class,” he says. “And when they see that they can apply what they learn next week, they get excited.”

Leonardo Zarate with his students at Morse High School’s three-million-dollar facility for auto-body repair and refinishing

He calls a senior named John Abad up to the front of the room and instructs him to show me around the $3.7 million facility that opened last September. Abad started the program as a junior, a year before the facility opened.

“Last year, it was pretty much all concept,” he says as we head out the door and across the asphalt to the 6855-square-foot building that looks like a Midas or a Pep Boys garage, only cleaner. “All we did was watch videos and take tests.”

The building houses a paint booth, a clean room, and auto alignment and frame bays. A 1999 Honda Civic sits up on a frame-puller. A car lift holds a 1998 Nissan pickup. A 2001 Volvo awaits attention atop an alignment rack. In the sanding and shop-lab areas stand a 1971 Chevy Chevelle and a 2001 Dodge Intrepid.

Abad wears khaki pants, a black button-down, a black sweatshirt, and red shoes. Black-framed glasses make him look simultaneously intellectual and trendy. The soft-spoken 17-year-old rubs his hands together while he speaks, but once we have moved all the way across the yard to where the action is, he occupies that nervous energy by fingering machines and tools and demonstrating the workings of magnets and sensors.

We start at the spray booth, where bicycle parts hang from a rack. Abad grabs the paint-spray nozzle, mimes using it, gestures in the air to show how paint fuses with the dust, and then bends down to point out the fans near the floor. He explains how the ventilation sucks the dust out of the room.

He takes me through the other bays, showing me computers that provide the alignment specifications of a car once its vehicle identification number, year, and model are plugged in. He uses phrases like “angles of camber” and explains the use of sensors and magnets in frame-pulling.

It’s a language I don’t quite follow, but I get the gist when he turns away from the tire-balancer, looks directly at me, and says, “I went to Pep Boys, and our shop has more technology than them.”

Today, Abad is something of a poster boy for the program. He gave a speech at the dedication ceremony last September, he led tours to prospective eighth-graders at the orientation last Saturday, and he appeared in all five of the photographs featured in a November 2012 Autobody News article about the facility.

But more than being the face of this particular program, Abad could also stand as the face of career and technical education, period. He’s one of those students to whom Zarate was referring when he said, “When they see that they can apply what they learn next week, they get excited.”

Abad says he applies what he learns in class on a regular basis. He and his friends hang out in each other’s garages and work on their cars after school. Sometimes girls come and hang out with them, he says, “but they kinda just get bored because we’re only paying attention to our cars.”

Abad has two cars of his own that he tinkers with: a 1991 BMW his dad gave him to fix up, and a 2005 Mazda RX-8. Ultimately, he’s hoping to get his hands on a Subaru STI, but for now, he’s saving his allowance for a new suspension system, which will run him about $1000.

“I have a really tight budget,” he says of his five-dollars-a-day allowance. “If I see something nice in the store, I ask myself, Do I really want it? I have to save for car parts and gas.”

Senior essays and portfolio requirements take up too much of Abad’s time for him to consider an internship now, but he’s hoping he can secure one at Discount Tire after he graduates in the spring.

Why Discount Tire?

“The first time I used the tire-changer, I had trouble with it,” he says. “And I want to learn how to change tires.”

In the fall, after the internship, he plans to attend the automotive-technology training program at Universal Technical Institute in Rancho Cucamonga. And after that, “Hopefully, I can get into the industry and work at a dealership as a mechanic for collision repair.” After a pause, he adds, “Or an estimator.”

When I ask if he knows what the pay is for those careers, he answers without hesitation.

“I think estimators make about $90,000. And mechanics range from $30,000 to $50,000.”

Like Hell’s Kitchen, but without the language

Instructor Sara Smith-Piatti with her student at Morse High School’s state-of-the-art culinary kitchen.

A few hundred feet east of the auto shop at Morse stands the Culinary Arts building, another multi-million-dollar facility (funded by Proposition 1D and Proposition S) that opened in 2012. This morning, the Hungry Tiger (a 6662-square-foot building complete with kitchen, restaurant -seating area, laundry, cold and dry storage, loading dock, offices, and restrooms) kitchen teams with juniors and seniors in blue aprons, performing all manner of kitchen duties.

Two girls stand in the grill area, cooking eggs and heating tortillas for breakfast burritos. In the cook-line area, two more girls assemble signature Tiger Muffins: the bottom of an English muffin piled with sausage, then egg, then cheese, then the muffin top, all wrapped up in the foil. Three students stand on the other side of the counter, looking on and waiting to deliver the breakfast sandwiches to classroom teachers.

The whole enterprise seems less like a classroom and more like a restaurant kitchen, with everybody performing his or her tasks. But instructor Sara Smith-Piatt (“Ms. Smith” to her students) says, “It’s kind of crazy today. We just changed everybody’s jobs. Today is only their fifth day.”

For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory

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monaghan March 12, 2013 @ 1:21 p.m.

This program livens up the high school curriculum for large numbers of San Diego kids who may not be college-bound -- a legitimate condition that was entirely ignored by the "high expectations" crowd for at least the last decade. Obviously, the workings are imperfect, as described here, but over time it can be improved and will benefit both students and local business and labor groups. It's the return of an old good idea after a long dry spell and the District needs to eliminate its present shortcomings and make it a showpiece.

Turning technical/vocational courses into graduation requirements for everyone is NOT a good idea, however, as those smart La Jollans and Scripps Ranchers realized last year. It's a mystery why the School District could not have figured that out on its own without sparking a middle class uprising and online petition to sink it.

Taking such an extreme step would have jeopardized the competitive admissions standing of college-bound San Diego public school students among their peers nationwide and ultimately it could have driven a lot of local families out of the public schools. It's possible the graduation requirement issue may return in future, as this may be yet another education "reform" fad similar to its "high expectations" predecessor -- ideas pushed in Sacramento and funded with private foundation and federal dollars in isolation from practical reality.


bvagency March 12, 2013 @ 2:37 p.m.

This is an excellent program for the large percentage of kids that wont go on to college. It provides training to ready these kids for a specific career. Unfortunately, not all school districts value this program. Sweetwater Union High District Trustees voted to issue pink slips to teachers in this program, thereby relegating it to possible elimination. This after the Districts Bond Program (prop o) spent tens of millions of dollars building classes specific to this education at numerous high schools.

Lack of vision, mis spending and ultimately lack of leadership will drastically impact kids in this program. Thank goodness the San Diego Unified district still sees value in it.


bbq March 13, 2013 @ 6:11 a.m.

As I am not sure I want to get into another running dialog on where we are screwing up in our educational system. As a Mechanical Engineer, I see a lot of Mechanically Illiterate People in our growing electronic world. I include my own three boys to a certain extent, which I take on myself, but like school and universities, have said for eons about General education we need well rounded individuals.
Well we have gone to the extreme where our students never get to understand the feeling of having a tool in their hands, weather its a wrench or a spatchula (sp), needle and thread, a musical instrument or how knowlege and training in useful skills.
The connection of hand to mind is a powerful teaching tool not only to learn a career but to foster a bond or desire to delve deeper into a subject or idea, really to create. Tools develop the ability to problem solve through logical progression, weather its bolt-washer- nut or flour-egg-water.
We do ourselves and our students, a disservice by not providing, supporting and in some cases requiring basic classes in these skills in our Middle and High Schools.


monaghan March 13, 2013 @ 3:54 p.m.

"The connection of hand to mind" IS powerful and important and should be part of children's lives. But the instruction needs to be excellent and the materials and tools should be first-rate. A retired physician friend makes wooden boats and travels once a month from his home in Massachusetts to practice wood-working with a Vermont craftsman. The work is more deeply satisfying to him than anything from his previous professional life. That's the kind of experience our students deserve.


bbq March 13, 2013 @ 10:36 p.m.

While I agree with your ideal, I will tell you two of the classes that affected my future the most were 6th Grade, combination of Home Econ/cooking, Wood Shop, Home Econ/sewing, Metal Shop and 9th Grade Industrial adventure, Metal, Wood shops, Automotives (rebuilt lawn mower engines) and Machine Drawing. These skills have never steered me wrong, I am an Engineer by trade but the basic skills and concepts are fundimental and transfer to life skills. Again well rounded individuals.


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