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Bonamici meets with Aloha High School auto tech students

TIMES PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici talks with Aloha auto technologies student Estefany Dominguez during a tour this week.

Amid the hum of engines and smell of diesel, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici spent Monday morning touring Aloha High School’s auto shop facilities.

“You guys look like you know what you’re doing,” Bonamici said to a group of students changing a car’s oil.

“We do,” replied Chris Schmitt, a Southridge High School senior who is enrolled in the automotive technology program at Aloha High School.

Schmitt is aiming for a career as a diesel mechanic. He and his classmates, juniors and seniors from high schools across the Beaverton School District, spend part of their school day at Aloha, where they spend 2 1/2 hours training for future careers through the school’s automotive technology program.

Bonamici chatted with students about the class and their future goals.

She came back to Beaverton fresh off a legislative victory in the U.S. House, which last week voted to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act with broad bipartisan support. The bill, now being considered by the Senate, would increase funding and resources for career and technical education nationwide.

During her visit, Bonamici pointed to an alignment machine purchased with federal dollars from the program’s most recent update, which was last authorized in 2006.

“I know that school districts don’t have extra funds sitting around to buy things like an alignment machine,” Bonamici said, adding that state and federal initiatives are crucial for students to gain access to the latest technology. “The more up-to-date learning they have, the more they’ll be able to step into a good-paying job,” she said.

Hands-on education

During the first few weeks of school, students in the auto tech program have been learning the basics, from oil changes to balancing tires to checking brakes.

“We’re going to be doing different things — brakes, alignments, engines, a little bit of everything,” said Louise Drow, who has been the lead teacher in the automative technology program for 13 years.

The program partners with local companies such as Beaverton Toyota and Les Schwab, who donate cars and equipment while also sending personnel to share their expertise.

Through the program, students have the opportunity to become certified by the National Automative Technicians Education Foundation.

“That makes them very hire-able,” said Christine Sinner, administrative assistant at Aloha.

As a certified program, the class must use current-generation cars which allow students to gain expertise working with modern, computerized parts.

Empowering students

Estefany Dominguez, a senior at Sunset High School, is enrolled in the program for the first time this year, and she’s already well-versed in how to change oil.

“We’re just going to put (the oil) back in, then start the car for 30 seconds, and check if it’s good,” Dominguez said.

As one of the few girls in the auto class, she deals with a lot of raised eyebrows.

“It’s really, really strange because everyone looks at you like, ‘Oh. You’re in auto tech?’” she said. “They look at you weird.”

But that doesn’t deter her.

“The class is just really fun,” Dominguez said.

For many students at Aloha and across the district, access to auto tech classes has been their impetus to stay enrolled in school and thrive afterward, explained Sinner.

That’s the position taken by proponents of Measure 98, which aims to lower Oregon’s high school dropout rate — one of the highest in the nation — by allocating funds for career and technical programs that would be available to all school districts. The proposal will appear on the state ballot this November.

Meanwhile, Bonamici is working to highlight career and technical education (CTE) programs at the federal level.

“Absolutely, CTE programs help keep students in school,” Bonamici said. “People learn in different ways, and the more students are engaged and the more they feel relevance to what they’re learning, the more they’re likely to stay in school.”

In this year’s budget, the district increased its funding for CTE programs.

Similar district-wide programs are offered at other high schools, including a health careers pathway at Beaverton High School and a sustainable foods program at the Terra Nova School.

If the Perkins program is re-authorized, Aloha could get the funds to continue updating cutting-edge programs, such as computer programming and auto tech, to reflect changing industries, said Sinner.

“We don’t want to teach what was good 10 years ago, or even five years ago,” said Sinner. “We want to teach what is current right now.”

TIMES PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - Aloha High auto technologies student Ben Friant retreads a tire ahead of a class tour from U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici.