“We try to teach them so when they leave here, they could make someone money,” teacher Mike Fanelli said.
The program is split into three years. As sophomores, students take a one-semester auto mechanics course that is about half book work and half shop work. In their junior and senior years, the students take a two-semester course with an increased emphasis on shop work. This school year, Fanelli teaches 40 sophomores, 16 juniors and 10 seniors.
A majority of students graduate certified by Virginia State Police to be state inspectors, or they get that certification soon after graduation, Fanelli said. That certification alone provides a degree of job security for the students.
After leaving the high school’s program, students have branched out to work as auto technicians in several surrounding areas, including Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Amherst County.
“We supply a lot of centers in the area with entry-level individuals,” Fanelli said. For instance, of the eight students who graduated from the program in May, four already are employed in the field, and all eight are doing state inspection work, he said.
NCHS graduate Aaron Scheib, 19, who completed the program in 2012, said he enjoyed the Auto technology program and felt it gave him a solid foundation for his work in the industry.
“It’s a great program,” said Scheib, who works as an auto technician at the Nelson County Public Schools bus garage, working on a variety of county-owned vehicles. During his senior year, he did an internship with the garage and then was employed full-time after graduation. Going through the program meant he and other students “could get into what we wanted to a little earlier on,” he said.
Since 2000, NCHS has been accredited under the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), which means the instruction, course of study, facility and equipment have been evaluated by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) and met standards of quality for training auto technicians.
“It brings the program to a higher level,” Fanelli said.
Earlier this year, the NCHS program was re-certified through 2018.
“Basically, they want these kids to have good entry-level skills,” said Fanelli, who has been an ASE master technician for more than 30 years and a NCHS teacher since 2006.
He said the high school’s program has been improving over the years to match the way cars have become more “technical and complicated.” Fanelli worked to move the class away from being a “hobby shop,” and NATEF’s enforced requirements have helped, he said.
“We’ve got a lot more stringent, I guess,” he said. “More rigid in some ways, but I think we’ve definitely come a long ways. But cars are so complicated. I mean, not anyone can fix them anymore.”
NCHS is certified in four of eight areas monitored by NATEF: brakes, electrical/electronic systems, engine performance and suspension and steering.
During the course of the students’ time in the three auto classes, the learning is comprehensive.
“We try to teach them a little bit of everything,” Fanelli said.
First and foremost is shop safety. Secondly, the students learn theories and small details car owners may not know or be able to apply when it comes to solving problems with their cars.
“We just teach [the students] a step-by-step, scientific method of troubleshooting it,” he said. “But the first thing we always do is verify the problem.”
A less obvious skill set taught in the course involves knowing how to interact with others, since students will be dealing with customers in the professional world.
“We try to teach them the soft skills, how to talk to people,” Fanelli said. “You know, if you think [a car is] a piece of junk, it may be someone’s baby, and you need to respect it.”
The school owns 10 vehicles that the students can practice on, and sometimes teachers or other students can bring in their cars. Fridays often provide an extra treat for those in the class, as Fanelli allows them to bring in their own vehicles to work on.
Scheib said that was his favorite thing about the course — “having free range of the shop on that day.”
He said the students also were lucky to have a master technician with a state inspection license as a teacher.
Overall, Schieb said, everything he needed to know heading into his job, he gained through the program. All the basic information he learned, especially knowledge about how to operate a lift, shop safety, changing oil, tire maintenance and more, has been used during his time at the bus garage.
“They leave with a wealth of knowledge,” Fanelli said.