Junking auto shop

Auto tech classes motivate students at a huge New York City school and prepare them for skilled jobs, writes Samuel Freedman in the New York Times. But the program is about to be junked.

On the ground floor of Kennedy, tucked between the football field and the weight room, a teacher named Manny Martinez runs an automotive technology program. In the combined garage and classroom, amid tool cabinets and hydraulic lifts and service bays, about 170 pupils a year study a ’97 Grand Am and ’96 Cavalier the way medical school students study cadavers, as a means of learning anatomy and organ function.

For many of Mr. Martinez’s charges, auto shop offers the one place and time where they experience the utility of an education. The vocational program keeps them coming to school. It has led a number of alumni into skilled jobs with dealerships and service centers, jobs that pay decent wages and benefits, jobs that boast a career ladder.

At a time in New York public education when specialized minischools are being uncritically embraced, one could plausibly say that the Kennedy auto tech program provides many of the same attributes: a focused curriculum, a motivated student body, the application of classroom knowledge in the real world. Which makes it nothing short of astonishing that within two weeks, if plans hold, the whole program will be shut down. The auto shop will be gutted, the students and teachers left directionless, several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of equipment hauled away.

Kennedy High needs to make space for three mini-schools specializing in theater, international studies and law and finance. Another Bronx high school also closed its auto tech program to make space for mini-schools. Why is there no space anywhere for a small school focused on automotive technology? The jobs are there.

Freedman is doing consistently excellent work for the Times, by the way.

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  1. Jetstorm says:

    Talk about sending mixed messages to our children. On the one hand, auto-shop, trade school, and agricultural based education programs all over America are being severely trimmed down or shut down altogether as the entire education system focuses on college prep. But on the other hand, we don’t hold these students to the heavy workload and rigorous academic standards necessary to prepare them for college, to the point where some graduate without having taken Algebra I! So schools end up churning out students who are unprepared for college, but don’t have any marketable trade skills that would enable them to get a decent paying job.

    Just like the public schools my parents pulled me out of; the teachers wanted you to go to college but there were no AP classes. Some of the kids were mechanically inclined or children of farmers, but there were no Ag classes or trade/shop programs. There were learning disabled kids, but no special education program. Nope, just a dumbed-down, middle-of-the-road “one size fits all” kind of pseudo-education, where the slowest children set the pace, and it did no child any good and enabled them to do nothing except be worker-drones for the rest of their lives at a meaningless job. Not good at all.

    One size does not fit all. Some kids can do Calculus, some kids can fix Chevys. And the education establishment needs to get back to that conventional wisdom.

  2. My district has been cutting foreign language over the last few years as the math/English high stakes testing craze is well under way here in ‘ol Delaware. As a Spanish teacher, I’m fairly secure, but one middle school has already zapped French, and another is nixing it after next year.

  3. Ummm, if the kids don’t understand fundamentals in reading, writing, and math, how do they expect to pass ASE exams in automotive repair (these exams aren’t easy, and require a great deal of knowledge to pass), including a solid ability to read, write, and perform math.

    The idea that we need things like international studies, and law programs in high school makes me wonder who is running the asylum these days?

  4. Bill Leonard says:

    Right on, Bill!

    It has always struck me as extraordinary that as a society we cling to the idea that a college education is the main goal in life, and is somehow a ticket to practice.

    Irony of ironies, I know of a young (aged 35) auto mechanic who makes considerably more money that the average teacher in California. Not everyone needs to, or should, go to college.

  5. NMK — Not My Kid sydrome here. It’s OK for your son/daughter to do autotech but Not My Kid. He or she is headed for college — and all the goodies of the American Dream that follow out of that.
    I’m no fan of Bush but think his proposed changes to the Perkins Act have some merit (creating pathways for non-academic students from high school through post-secondary school in conjunction with local post-secondary institutions) while holding them to more rigorous academic standards. Perhaps by doing so, pathways such as auto-tech will become more acceptable in the eyes of parents and society.

  6. Gwen..”It’s OK for your son/daughter to do autotech but Not My Kid. He or she is headed for college”…I’m sure this is true in many cases..and the sad part is, it will sometimes result in a kid getting a meaningless degree and working at the low end of retail, when he could have been an auto shop manager making 3 times as much. But I’m sure there are also parents who support their kid’s interest in shop and who will be devastated by this decision.

    I have a post on this up at my blog.

  7. Never mind that 3 of the auto techs at the dealer I take my Corolla to make 100K a year and like working on cars. In case it’s escaped some parents, Cars are very high tech these days, and the average new car has no less than 20 computer modules onboard controlling fuel, emissions, idle, engine diagnostics, etc).

    Of course, this is the reason why a GOOD education with lots of math, science, english, etc is appropriate for everyone (rationale, you’ll be able to pursue more opportunities than a single track area).

    Just my two cents worth.

  8. Jetstorm says:


    You are so right about NMK (Not My Kid) Syndrome. On one hand, a parent will tell you how college is not for everybody and that there need to be “other educational options,” for “other” children, but not their little John or Jane, who will be going to college no matter what.

    I don’t know when this huge stigma about non-college bound kids started, but it is one of the things that must change about our system. Kids need to be encouraged to do what they are good at and put in the programs that will most benefit them. If that’s trade school or agricultural education, so be it. There is no shame in being an auto mechanic or a farmer; you can make a pretty decent living and have your piece of the American Dream if you work hard and play your cards right.

    Too many parents blow a gasket when they find out Lil’ Johnny would rather fix cars then study molecular biology at Harvard or that Lil’ Suzy wants to be a stay-at-home mom instead of a working girl. My response; so freakin’ what?!?! Let kids follow their hearts and do what they are good at.

    A very profound statement I once heard; “College is not for everyone. Education is.”

  9. About the need for basic education to do well in the trade programs — yes, that’s true. But I have seen people willing to practice annoying basic skills to achieve something they really want to do — like practicing scales and speed drills to be able to play music, or doing a rigorous schedule of calisthenics and weight training to be able to do something athletic in particular.

    I had a relative who didn’t much care that he couldn’t read easily until he found there were books on things he really wanted to know about. Even little kids aren’t into learning for the sake of learning — you find they really want to know about dinosaurs or ballet or something-or-other. One needs a goal.

    I think it’s a good idea to nurture these interests, and incorporate other subjects into the main interest. I think it’s a great idea to have schools based around a theme, whether finance, theater, or auto maintenance and repair. (International studies is too nebulous for me to think of it as a real interest or theme. Is this about history? Language? What?) None of these topics necessarily lead to college, btw.

    Anyway, why close something that’s working for the sake of novelty? I think vo-tech education is a great idea, along with these other things, but that which is already there and is successful should be allowed to continue. I’m sure there are failing programs elsewhere that can be cleared out for these new programs.

  10. Steve LaBonne says:

    With what good, well-trained auto techs earn these days I’d be only too happy if my daughter wanted to be one- it would save me all that college tuition money _and_ insure that she could support me in my old age. 😉

  11. I attended my son’s academic awards night before he graduated and what did I notice? All the “bragging” about how much money this kid or that kid go to go to college. No technical school, no auto tech school, vocational ed school. Just plain school.
    You know the usual drip, doctor, lawyer, etc. All I could think of what I read on joanne’s site, 50% of graduates will not make it through collge ….

  12. This discussion has got me to thinking about something.

    Enrollment in engineering schools by U.S. citizens is down. Could it be that engineering, especially the core engineering like Mechanical, Materials, Aerospace are now seen by parents as similar to the trade skills. Up to about 30 years ago most parents had not gone to college. On the other hand men like my father, who worked for GM, did work with engineers. He knew what they did first hand where he was clueless about other professions like Law and Business. So he encouraged me to go to college but in something he understood.

    Now many parents have gone to college and I think they, maybe unconsiously, look down on engineers with the exception of the cutting edge types of engineering like biomedical, etc. I have even heard some engineers say they would like to see their kids go into something other than engineering

    Interestingly enough I used to be an aerospace engineer before I become a physics and engineering teacher (My high school offers a course in first year engineering through Ohio State taught by me) and at our graduation last Sunday one mother came up to me and told me she had spent years telling her daughter to go into medicine but two years with me in physics and engineering had made her decide to go into engineering. I think she was disappointed in the decision. Both parents in this case are doctors.


  13. auto shop, et cetera. Why do ‘they’ do this? We often hear about teaching ‘life long skills’ in our schools, yet when money crunches come, or are allowed (by improper priorities), what is cut first; Driver’s Ed., Home Ec., Auto Shop…, if these aren’t ‘life long skills’, I don’t know what would qualify.