Auto class in winner’s circle
The cacophony of garage sounds and paint smells coming out of Heath Daniel's classroom might be cause for alarm in most schools. Then again, the heaps of cars strewn outside might raise a few principals' eyebrows, too.
But there's something unique going on in Daniel's classroom at the Eudora Community Learning Center. Students from the auto collision repair course came back from the state's Vocational and Industrial Clubs of America competition with several awards. And students in the program don't practice for VICA's tests -- they're cramming for the tests the "real world" has to offer.
"Most others teach for the test," said Jacob Smith, a Free State High School junior from Lawrence. "We're being taught for real-world situations."
Although Daniel boasts about the first-year program's recent accomplishments, he concedes his focus isn't on bringing home hardware but rather bringing home the tools of the trade to his students.
"If they knew the test and didn't know how to do the real work, what's the point?" Daniel said. "It's more important for me to teach them a skill that's going to earn them a living rather than (a bunch) of medals."
Such a philosophy may have held the competitors back a little, Daniel said, but nonetheless his students brought home three medals against more than 50 other students from across the state who competed in the VICA competition. Among the winners was Eudora High School junior Chad Hale, who placed second in the written test over shop safety.
Hale said the test asked questions about safety elements like hazardous materials, welding safety, and what particular signs meant.
"I work on a farm and should have known what those little triangles mean, but I couldn't picture it," said Mark Shutt, another Eudora High School junior who participated in the VICA competition.
Most of the students said performing the duties for competition wasn't any different from the classroom, but Shutt disagreed.
"I was shaking," he said. "I was really nervous."
But that was part of first-year jitters, said Daniel, who hopes experienced competitors will boost the class' performance next year.
Kyle O'Keefe, a Free State senior, placed second in math calculations and won best overall painting. For the latter competition, O'Keefe spent several hours painting a fender the same silver color as the other competitors, focusing on an even paint job.
"I would like to have my fender back," O'Keefe said.
In the math competition, students were asked to perform "basic" math calculations, Daniel said. The calculations were the type students would encounter working in an auto shop, such as when mixing paint, he said.
"It wasn't basic math," O'Keefe said with a chuckle. "It's 'divide this decimal by this fraction times four' in your head."
After completing the auto collision course and graduating, the students are employable. Although the juniors were yet undecided about their future, O'Keefe said he planned to attend Washburn University in Topeka and Kaw Area Technical School.
Daniel said once he got students involved in the program he tried to find their niche in the field, developing an individualized study plan for them.
"I try to pick up on what they're good at and what they like," he said.
The time when one mechanic repaired a car from start to finish was gone, he said.
"Everything is so streamlined," he said. "One guy does one thing."
As homework -- or rather shopwork -- students work on cars brought in by customers. Daniel said the class charged car owners for parts and products the students used and asked the customers to make a donation to the program.
Those funds helped students who couldn't afford certain equipment or to subsidize participation in activities like the VICA competition.
However, Eudorans looking to get some repairs done and help out the program should be aware the class has a waiting list for cars that was backed up through next academic year, Daniel said. After the program completed its first job, word got out.
"I think we do quality work," Daniel said.
Shutt's classwork had a self-serving purpose. Through the auto collision repair course, the Eudora High School junior got to paint his 1987 Chevrolet pick-up truck flame red. Although his fellow VICA competitors were complimentary of the results, Shutt had a back-up plan in case his handiwork was, well, less than handy.
"If it came out bad, I was going to have my mother take it back," he said.
Daniel credits USD 491, its superintendent, Marty Kobza, and Eudora Auto Parts as 'blessings" in making a success of the program, which after a recent open house had 200-some students interested in the program's 40 slots next year, when Eudora's school district will take over the program.
Although currently no female students are enrolled in auto collision repair, Daniel said about a quarter of next year's applicants were girls.
This year's experiences have not only given students a chance to operate on cars for real customers, but students have also been able to do some custom paint work. The students designed and painted a helmet and will soon do custom work on a guitar, which Smith said spoke to the goal of preparing students for a career.
"In real life," Smith said, "you paint all kinds of stuff."