The first day of school is two weeks away and Jason Hallman is pretty jazzed about what's to come, what with all those pictures on his cellphone showing construction of the 6,300-square-foot state-of-the-art auto shop he'll be moving into and that fresh blue ink on his left forearm.
Yes, there among his tattoos is the logo for the Academy of Automotive Technology at Wesley Chapel High — a tribute marking Hallman's enthusiasm for the program he has been teaching since 2010 when he answered a want ad on Craigslist.
"Kids have been scared away from learning a trade, but this country was built by tradesmen and craftsmen," said Hallman, who cut his chops as a parts counter salesman in Detroit and worked his way up to dealership management. "I want to unlock their natural abilities. I want to teach all of them how to learn skills they can use the rest of their lives, whether they end up working in a shop, or going to post-secondary school to get a business administration degree, or just knowing something about the car they drive and how to maintain it."
Come November, students should be breaking out the wrenches in a brand new shop.
"It's really great that they'd build this building for us," said incoming senior Brett Taylor, 17, who served as student speaker at the ground breaking ceremony in May. "I've been in the program since my freshman year, from classroom to a shed in the back parking lot and now this. It's like an icebreaker into the auto industry."
With six bays, two offices, a student classroom and a slew of shiny new tools, the $1.5 million auto facility is a definite boost for the program, which stands to feed local dealerships that line County Road 54 corridor.
"I'm really stoked about it. For a high school to build a standalone building, well, they've really stepped up," said auto academy advisory council member John Edge.
As the fixed operations manager for Pasco Motors in Wesley Chapel, Edge knows it's not easy to find entry level employees with the proper knowledge and skills, whether it be in the mechanic shop, body shop, the parts counter or sales office.
"This is a career where you have to use your hands and your mind, and I think they're doing a good job teaching that over there," Edge said. "I like what I see and, come next year as things swing into place, I'll be looking for some potential employees from that program."
Now entering its fourth year, the automotive program is one of 17 learning academies sprinkled throughout Pasco County high schools. Each academy focuses on specific fields of study, including culinary arts, medical arts, veterinary assisting, information technology, engineering, finance, building technology and business management.
The idea behind the academies is to provide students with knowledge, experience and options onto a career path to industries that need better trained employees. All academies have an advisory council with representatives from the business community who weigh in on things like curriculum, necessary tools and equipment and sometimes offer employment or shadowing experiences to students. Upon completion, students leave with skills and, in most cases, certification that prepares them for entry-level employment while providing a foundation for further education at a technical school, community college or four-year university.
"The academies are the beginning of a career path," said Rob Aguis, director of the school district's community, career and technical education department. When polled, nearly 82 percent of enrolled students said they intend to further their education, Aguis said. "We've never seen numbers like that before," he said, adding that recent graduates are heading to various state schools as well as Embry-Riddle University and Kent State.
"This academy gives kids the opportunity to work toward ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certification that will help them get a job down the road," said assistant principal Shelly Carrino, who administers Wesley Chapel High's auto academy. She said students "learn hands-on while at the same time exposing themselves to the idea that they can go to college."
About 74 students were enrolled in Wesley Chapel's automotive academy when Hallman took over. This year the program accepted 149 students out of 270 applicants and hired a second teacher, Jeff Corliss. And there's still room to grow.
"Some of the kids weren't used to getting dirty when I got here," Hallman said. "So the first thing I did was unlock the tool room and brought out the tools."
Hallman, who owns a motorcycle repair shop in Plant City, also brought in old lawn mower engines for his students to take apart, and he set up a makeshift shop under a temporary carport in the back parking lot. There students learned the basics — oil and filter changes and detailing — along with more intricate tasks, such as hoisting an engine out of a car. "I told them, "It's an auto shop — you're going to scrape your knuckles; you're going to get dirty," Hallman said.
The students also have to learn how to clean up and make a good impression: Each student has to prepare a resume and, for their final exam, sit for mock job interview in professional attire.
But the draw for D.J. Peeples, 18, is rolling up his sleeves and getting under the hood. He has been checking up on the building's progress throughout the summer and hopes to attend one of Ford's automotive schools after graduation to pursue a career in engineering.
"I race and I love cars. If it has a motor, I'm on it," said Peeples, who races sprint cars at East Bay Raceway Park in Tampa and works part-time detailing cars for Parks Ford in Wesley Chapel. "It's pretty fun — I just love getting my hands dirty all day long."