SHS students are shifting gears

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Socorro High School has an automotive technology program for students interested in automotive mechanics.

Lindsey Padilla/El Defensor Chieftain: Socorro High School students taking the auto tech course learn about brakes, axles, electronics, electricity and more. The fifth-period class in the auto tech course, pictured from left, are Katana Garcia, Summer Allen, Sarah Patterson, Dewey Sauls, Colton Wheeler, Carlos Comez and teacher Tony Montoya.

This is the 15th year for the program, said auto tech teacher Tony Montoya. The course is one of two in New Mexico schools to have the dual enrollment course with Western New Mexico University.

The course moved to the new career building a year ago. In previous years, students enrolled in the course were taken to Torres Elementary School, Montoya said.

In order to get the dual enrollment course, Montoya filled out the necessary paperwork. WNMU hired Montoya because he has 26 years’ experience in automotive repair, he said. At Socorro High School, Montoya worked as an assistant coach with athletic trainer duties from 1996 to 2005.

Montoya started out with 17 students in the auto tech course, and has increased enrollment to 40 students. However, some students have transferred out of the program because they moved on to different things, or because the program was not for them, he said.

“My experience is in auto repair,” Montoya said. “It’s like running a business that I’ve mastered.”

The auto tech course has six categories to master. The first is theory of brakes; second is manual transmissions and axles; third is electronics and electricity; fourth is chasings and steering; fifth is automatic transmission and trans axles; and the sixth is air conditioning.

Montoya has 24 students in theory of brakes, 17 in electronics and four in automatic transmission and trans axles, he said. The four who are in the last category will complete the program in May.

His fifth-period class, which has six students, has completed the brakes and manual program and is halfway through electricity and electronics, he said. Once students have completed the program, they are eligible to take an Automotive Service Excellent test to be certified in any automotive category.

Students can take the test on their own or do it through WNMU, he said.

SHS junior Dewey Sauls is in the course, and has found relating the difference between what he learns from the book and what he learns in the shop challenging, he said.

“I get to learn about fixing things,” Sauls said. “I learned how to build bikes, so I wanted to know how to work on cars. I have helped people where I live change oil and fix brakes.”

Sauls’ plans for college include going to WNMU and earning a certified degree as a mechanic. He wants this as his future, he said.

“Montoya is a good teacher,” he said. “If you don’t understand the material, he will describe it to you.”

The course gives students a choice as to the direction they want to take in the future because there are various categories, Montoya said. “Electronics is involved in everything,” he said.

“The challenges are learning how to use tools,” said junior Katana Garcia.

Garcia said her family works on cars, and because of the course, she now knows how to solve car problems. Garcia joined the program because she wanted to see what it was like. She would like to study automotive and photography in college. The auto tech course will help her feel more prepared, she said.

“You have to know how a car operates,” Montoya said. “The book gives plenty of examples and the students are learning electrical terms. They (students) are balancing classroom and shop work.”

Sophomore Summer Allen has been in the course for two years, and said she likes it because it’s a laid back environment.

Montoya pushes the students, but not to the point where they are stressed, she said.

“The hands-on connects you with a verbal reminder of what you are doing,” Allen said.

She plans to follow through with the course in her junior year. She said she grew up around auto mechanics, and said it’s interesting that she gets college credits.

“I want to know what’s wrong with my car so I don’t get ripped off,” Allen said.

Students who are enrolled in the course receive a dual enrollment — one credit per semester — while still earning high school credit, Montoya said. The full course is equal to five college credits that can be transferred if the students choose to major in automotive. If not, the credits can be used as an elective in college.

“There is a shortage in automobile mechanics, and it’s important to have hands-on people in these areas.” Montoya said.

According to Montoya, 70 percent of the work is done in the classroom and the other 30 percent is hands-on in the shop.

“This course will lead students to jobs in the parts industry and will help with resumes,” Montoya said.

Junior Sarah Patterson started the program as a freshman. She dropped out in the first semester and said the challenge was having to come back.

“It’s hard to leave and come back, you forget about a lot of things,” Patterson said.

Patterson’s grandfather was a mechanic, and she was interested in it. It is a possibility this will be in her field when she gets older, she said.

“Hands-on is beneficial because it’s different than the book, because it’s different when it’s right in front of you,” Patterson said.

Montoya doesn’t want to compete with other auto shops in the area. People who want to bring cars in the shop can call and set up an appointment with him so students can work on automobiles during class periods, he said.

Junior Carlos Gomez is from Chihuahua, Mexico. He knew very little English when he took the program and he had to drop out in the first semester because of the language barrier, Montoya said, but then he came back.

Gomez said when he first took the course it was hard, but he had help from his tutor. He took the class because it’s fun to know how to fix your own car, he said.

According to Gomez, working with cars is one of his options for when he attends college.

“I will be able to help someone to solve their problems with fixing a car,” Gomez said.

Montoya said the program has grown tremendously, but money is always a struggle. WNMU and Socorro Consolidated Schools provide the tools and equipment, and the school district also supplies the curriculum, he said.

“We are very fortunate to have the program,” Montoya said.

Sophomore Colton Wheeler took the course because he thought it would be fun and wants to fix cars himself, he said.

“I didn’t think I was going to learn how to fix a car. It’s fun,” Wheeler said. “I like the hands-on, because without hands-on I would be lost. I want to attend college and eventually work at a shop, and in the future open my own shop.”