By: Ann Doss Helms, Charlotte Observer
When the morning bell rings at Myers Park High, 16 girls are in the auto shop at the back of campus, ready to pop some hoods and get under the chassis.
“If you’re not getting your hands dirty, you’re not doing it right,” beams 17-year-old Miley Chavez, who dreams of opening her own garage and calling it The Lady Wrenchers.
Myers Park High, nestled in one of Charlotte’s most prestigious neighborhoods, is best known for producing International Baccalaureate graduates who compete for top scholarships and Ivy League Schools.
But the booming auto shop there – the all-girls introductory class is the latest addition – illustrates a crucial part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ strategy: All schools should offer pathways to hands-on careers as well as college. And those career-technical classes should try to attract students who might not traditionally sign up.
Women are underrepresented in automotive jobs, some of which are in high demand in Charlotte. And as the founder of Girls Auto Clinic wrote in the Washington Post, they often dread going to male-dominated auto shops, where a study has shown they may face higher bills.
Kristina Carlevatti, who has taught automotive classes at Myers Park for six years, hopes to make young women more confident about their own cars and put them on a career path. She had thought her presence might encourage girls to enroll.
She traces her own interest back to her teen years, when she broke a serpentine belt on her Jeep Wrangler doing doughnuts in the snow. Rather than face her dad’s disapproval, she read up, bought a $14 replacement belt and did the repair herself. Now she’s certified to teach pre-engineering technical education – and yes, she was in a distinct minority taking automotive classes in college.
But while Carlevatti has built enrollment to the point her classes had waiting lists, the overwhelming majority of her students were still male. This semester Myers Park hired a second automotive teacher, and Carlevatti added the all-girl class.
Evelyn Harris, a 17-year-old junior, says she’d always been interested in how cars work but hesitated to sign up for a typical class. “Guys tend to think they know everything,” she said. In the girls’ class, she’s comfortable learning to use tools, do auto inspections and check brakes.
“I actually want to make it my career,” she said.
Carlevatti is eager to see young women like Harris enroll for more advanced classes, which won’t be separated by gender. Once they’ve mastered the basics, they’re likely to have more confidence, she says – and discover that many of the boys don’t arrive with much automotive experience either.
The expansion of career and technical education, often abbreviated to CTE, hasn’t gotten as much attention in CMS as the focus on academic magnet programs. But it’s an essential part of meeting the state’s mandate to prepare graduates for careers and college.
Myers Park is among six of the district’s 18 neighborhood high schools that offer an automotive program; Independence will join the list next year. Myers Park will add a STEM academy that features computer programming, engineering and biomedical classes.
CTE students who complete a four-course track and take the ACT WorkKeys exams can leave high school with credentials for immediate employment. But many CTE students are college-bound, sometimes using their high school skills to earn money while they pursue two- or four-year degrees.
Carlevatti says more of her students go into engineering than straight to work for auto shops. But she’s proud to have recently placed two students into part-time jobs doing state inspections while they finish high school. Her shop is licensed to do North Carolina vehicle inspections, and the school will pay for students who are old enough to get certified.
The new crop of female students are also being exposed to the fun side of auto mechanics. Myers Park students, male and female, are rebuilding an engine for a donated 1977 Chevy pickup truck that they’ll race in “24 Hours of LeMons,” an endurance race for clunkers being held in Kershaw, S.C., in April. Students will serve as drivers, pit crew and cheering section. Last year Carlevatti says her group was the only high school team.
Even if they don’t pursue automotive careers, Carelvatti says she’s excited to see young women getting their hands greasy and learning skills that, at the very least, will make them smarter about their own cars.
“Just being able to use their hands and use their minds, brainstorming and troubleshooting, is going to be huge for them,” she said.