A racing start to education

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009
— Fluorescent light glares off red and chrome toolboxes and bounces off the bright blue floor.

Despite the loud color scheme, the mood in the shop is one of patient study.

A group of young men drains the oil from a car. Another group huddles around a computer monitor looking at technical data.

One young man painstakingly wraps thin rings around pistons. All of the young men are working in matching black pants and T-shirts.

It looks just like any automotive repair shop. But there's one exception: the guys working on the cars are barely old enough to have their driver's licenses.

This automotive class is a flagship program for the Stateline Career and Technical Education Academy, a budding program that will allow school districts from around Rock County to share resources in order to bring technical education to high school students.

Currently, students from Clinton, Orfordville and Turner school districts are joining Beloit students in the shop. Some students come from the charter school in the Hendricks Education Center next door.

"The one common link is their passion for automobiles," said Steve McNeal, executive director of educational programs with the School District of Beloit.

Janesville and Evansville school districts have plans to get on board in the near future.

This first "center of excellence," as the work-based classroom is called, was started with a grant from former Beloit businessman Ken Hendricks. The shop is located in the Eclipse Center in what was once a Sears Automotive Center at the Beloit Mall.

It's not your typical shop class, said teacher Pete Raskovic, a former auto technician who was recruited to Beloit from a teaching job in Pennsylvania.

The key difference between this kind of class and a more traditional shop class is the teacher's experience, Raskovic said. He has 24 years of experience as an Automotive Service Excellence-certified mechanic and—among other racing credentials—as a team member and mechanic for Indy Racing League team owner A.J. Foyt.

The class itself is more intense than traditional high school shop classes, Raskovic said. It goes beyond the basics and provides students the chance to learn about modern diagnostic equipment and engines, he said.

Participating students take classes for half a day five days a week for two years.

For two Clinton students, that means working in the shop all morning, going back to Clinton High School for lunch and taking four classes in the afternoon.

The automotive class takes the place of their electives, Clinton juniors Nate Furman and Luke Watson said.

Turner High School senior David Knoble was recruited by his guidance counselor who is familiar with Knoble's love of drag racing and his hobby of rebuilding engines with his dad.

The goal is to get students to land apprenticeships and jobs at local auto repair shops and attend post-secondary school, Raskovic said.

"When they get to technical college, they will be able to scream through this stuff," Raskovic said.

By the time students finish technical school, they can say they've been working in the industry since they were 16, he said.

"You can't put a price tag on that," Raskovic said. "That's education that's theirs."

The problem is that the price tag can be daunting for individual high schools that want to run this kind of program—whether it's in the automotive industry or another industry, McNeal said.

Keeping up with the technology is expensive, and finding a qualified teacher is difficult, he said.

"Few people want to stop in the middle of a lucrative career as a technician to go back to school to be a teacher," McNeal said. "Or, few teachers would want to stop what they're doing and start a career as an industry professional."

As the program continues, participating schools could start teaching introductory automotive classes that would feed into the class in Beloit, McNeal said. In the meantime, districts could start looking for teachers and funding for other programs such as culinary arts or welding, McNeal said as examples.

Whatever the career path, the goal is to give students a head start, Raskovic said.

"We're preparing students for industry," Raskovic said. "This is not an enrichment class or a hobby class."

Last updated: 11:45 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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