NORTH TAMPA — It wasn't easy. As Anthony Colucci tells it, the process involved hundreds of pages of paperwork.
But it's official: The Bowers/Whitley Career Center in Tampa is an AYES school, and Colucci, the school's principal, couldn't be happier.
The designation from the industry-supported Automotive Youth Educational Systems means some graduates of Bowers/Whitley will be qualified to find jobs at local car dealerships.
It's a step above conventional high school automobile mechanic programs, said Randy Houck, Florida's AYES coordinator. In fact, Houck said Bowers/Whitley will be the only AYES school in the Tampa Bay area. "The closest one to you is in Sarasota," he said.
It's also a milestone for the North Tampa school, which specializes in educating students who are at risk of dropping out. Those who complete the program and graduate will qualify for entry-level jobs that pay $12 to $15 an hour, Houck said.
AYES was initiated in the mid 1990s as a way for car dealers to have access to qualified young technicians. "When I was a kid, we messed with our own cars," said Houck, 56. "Kids today don't do that."
What's more, cars have become more complex, needing far more than the occasional oil change or brake job. "The average car has 20 computer systems in it," Houck said. "When you have a problem, it's usually not a mechanical problem, but an electrical one."
Looking for a partnership with a local school, Houck hit it off with Colucci. "He has an enthusiasm that permeates everything in that school," Houck said. "Kids there understand what they have to do and why. They can see light at the end of the tunnel."
Now the two are working to strengthen relationships with local dealers who can provide internships and jobs.
While much of the instruction is comparable to standard high school programs, Houck said the AYES program is more sophisticated. "It's not necessarily what we teach, but how we teach it," he said.
For students with good enough grades and conduct, there are summer internships at dealerships between the junior and senior year that pair the kids up with mentors.
"Not all kids get into the internship," Houck said. "Some wash out. But the ones that do, you see a tremendous change in those kids when they come back in their senior year."