RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lahainaluna High students Justin Phelps, left, and Ashley Badua take part in the AAA Hawaii 2006 Student Auto Skills Contest at Leeward Community College.
Auto shop programs stall out at isle schools
Higher pay elsewhere lures away teachers
Dennis Ishii and Neill Nakamura, who teach automotive technology at Maui High School, have consistently produced the best students in the nation in their field.
But similar programs at other schools in Hawaii are shutting down for lack of teachers. It is hard to compete with the high salaries offered in the trades, and experienced mechanics who want to work with kids are turned away for lack of a college degree.
The Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills National Finals will be held June 27 in Dearborn, Mich.
Hawaii's team: Glen Bissell and Joey Hoopai Souza of Maui High School
Instructors: Dennis Ishii and Neill Nakamura
Maui High School's record at the national competition since 1995:
First place: twice
Second place: four times
Fourth place: twice
Seventh place: twice
Source: Maui High School
"The vocational programs are all dying because the instructors retire and they're not finding anybody to come in," said Ishii, who founded the Maui High's auto shop program 33 years ago and has built a national reputation for it.
For 10 of the last 11 years, the Kahului school has fielded the best auto tech team in the state and gone on to the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills National Finals. During that time, Maui High has won the U.S. competition twice, come in second four times and never placed lower than seventh.
In the old days, just about every high school had an auto shop program and most schools had two instructors, Nakamura said. Today, just 23 of Hawaii's 43 public high schools still offer automotive technology, some of them just a class or two, according to Michael Barros, a career and technical education specialist for the Department of Education.
"It's not limited to automotive," Barros said. "It's an issue for areas where there's a need for trades people -- construction, agriculture, drafting. We've been having a hard time getting teachers."
A bill that recently passed the Legislature aims to address the problem by allowing the Department of Education to waive the requirement for a college degree for people with trade and industry experience who want to teach vocational, technical and "career pathway" courses. Their qualifications would be assessed under alternate criteria, and they would receive teacher training and mentoring, Barros said.
Senate Bill 2887 CD1, introduced by Sens. Norman Sakamoto and Suzanne Chun Oakland, is now being reviewed by the governor . It was supported by school officials, the state Workforce Development Council and the teachers' union. The Hawaii Teacher Standards Board, which initially had reservations, help draft the final version.
Susan Scofield, principal at Maui's Kekaulike High School, was excited to learn last week that it had passed. Her school in Pukalani has struggled to find staff for its auto shop, wood shop, food service kitchen and agriculture facilities. A few years ago, it wanted to hire an automotive specialist, but could not because he was short of credits for a bachelor's degree.
Maui High student Glen Bissell, left, instructor Neill Nakamura and student Joey Hoopai Souza have excelled in state auto competitions.
"That was tough," she said. "The sad part is we are in Upcountry Maui. This area is filled with vegetable and flower farms, yet our agriculture facilities sit idle for lack of a teacher."
Hilo High School shut down its auto shop when its teacher retired in 2004, and no replacement could be found. Kau High on the Big Island used to offer auto shop, wood shop and electrical classes, but no longer.
"The only thing we have going right now is agriculture," said Josephine DeMorales, Kau's principal. "We were fortunate to be able to keep the ag teacher with us. We used to have a full industrial arts program. We haven't been able to find any teachers."
Ishii said one of his former students, Shannon Rowe, comes in after work to volunteer with the kids and wants to take Ishii's place when the longtime teacher retires in a year and a half. But unless the bill is signed into law, Rowe won't qualify. He graduated a decade ago and is a "senior master technician" for Ford and nationally certified as a mechanic, but he has an associate degree.
"He is at the highest level in the field with Ford," Ishii said. "To say somebody like that cannot come in and teach the course -- that does not make any sense to me at all."
Ishii, who went through the traditional teacher training program, said students can learn more from experienced mechanics than graduates fresh out of school with an industrial arts degree, who are generalists.
"Our area of automotive is changing unbelievably fast," he said. "Shannon would come in with a lot more knowledge with what's happening in today's vehicles, as compared to a lot of the instructors who've been teaching in the high schools."
Maui High students Joey Hoopai Souza and Glen Bissell won the state contest in April and are practicing every day for the national finals on June 27 in Dearborn, Mich. Teams from around the country will each take a 100-question written exam and then race to fix cars bugged with the same electrical and mechanical problems.
"It's a combination of both excitement and pressure, because we have a lot to live up to," said Bissell, who plans to pursue engineering at Seattle University this fall. "With 'Ish' you do learn the automotive trade a lot, but at the same time you learn how to conduct yourself throughout life."