Santa Ana’s Tom’s Truck Center And Valley High Combine For A Winning Partnership
Tanya Garcia took an interest in automotive repair as a young girl watching her dad and other men in her Santa Ana neighborhood work on their cars.
It’s what drove her to transfer from Godinez High after her freshman year to Valley High, where she is a senior this year.
Garcia, 19, had heard about the George P. Heidler Jr. Automotive Transportation and Logistics Academy, an award-winning program on the Valley High campus.
After two years in the automotive program, Garcia knows her way around a car engine as well as any of the other students in class, mostly boys. Sometimes, even better.
There was the time Garcia tried to help a group of guys put a set of spark plug wires back in the right order. “Oh, you don’t know anything,” they told her at first. Then they got frustrated as they couldn’t figure it out and said, “OK, you do it.”
Garcia replaced all the wires correctly, in short order, prompting automotive shop instructor Saul Garcia (no relation) to start laughing and tell them, “You guys would have been done a lot sooner if you had listened to her.”
Chalk that up as one of the life lessons that students who want to be automotive technicians pick up along the way as they learn skills that earn them internships, certifications and college scholarships.
None of it would be possible without the support of the Santa Ana auto business that George P. Heidler bought in 1973 and grew into what is now Tom’s Truck Center/Carmenita Truck Center/Kia Depot.
Heidler was an early proponent of the automotive academy, along with five other career-focused academies overseen by the nonprofit High School Inc. that is housed at Valley High.
The bond between High School Inc.’s automotive academy and the Tom’s organizations has been forged with financial support, mentoring, volunteer activities and other in-kind donations, including the shop uniforms that give students a professional look at competitions and protect their clothing in class.
Now the collaboration has earned the 2016 Giving is Living Award from OneOC, an honor presented to the most outstanding nonprofit/corporate volunteer partnership in Orange County.
The award is part of the annual recognition given to individuals, nonprofits, local businesses and corporations at the Spirit of Volunteerism Awards hosted in April by OneOC, the county’s one-stop shop to help nonprofits grow and successfully engage with volunteers and the business community.
An announcement from OneOC said the automotive academy partnership stood out among the 36 nominations for the Giving is Living Award because of “exemplary collaborative efforts in preparing Orange County youth to be career-ready and launching them into a successful future.”
The six academies at Valley High were established in 2008 to address the school’s worrisome graduation rate – the lowest in Santa Ana Unified – and to help develop skilled employees for the local workforce. Students spend three years taking academy courses along with their required high school classes.
While other high schools offer training in automotive repair, the Heidler academy is the only one in Orange County accredited by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.
The accreditation provides Valley High students access to entry-level certification from the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence, the organization that certifies professional technicians and shops in the industry.
Instructor Garcia beams at a bulletin board where he posted the ASE certificates two of his students recently earned in electrical systems: “If you don’t understand electrical, you’re pretty much going to have a tough time on the others.”
Garcia is adamant that his students are prepared, from skills to grades to attendance.
“I’m never going to send a student out if they’re not ready for it,” he said, reflecting High School Inc.’s overall goal of job readiness.
High School Inc. partnered with Santa Ana Unified and the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce to develop the academies, using a study that determined which careers would most likely provide future employment in Orange County.
About 1,000 students, or roughly half the Valley High enrollment, are in the six academies, which also include Culinary Arts and Hospitality; Health Care; New Media; Global Business; and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction.
If a student is struggling with school, involvement in one of the academies can be an incentive to push on and keep grades up, said Jennifer Luis, human resource director for the Tom’s organizations and the point person working with High School Inc.
“They’ve got something they are really excited about,” she said. “It helps them show up every day.”
George P. Heidler Jr., who died in 2010, was a longtime member of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and became a champion of High School Inc.
“George Heidler was one of the first in the partnership to give a big monetary donation and put his heart and soul and time into helping the kids,” said Shaylin Johnson, program director for High School Inc. Foundation.
“That’s why we dedicated the naming of the academy for him just before he died.”
Employees have given more than 660,000 volunteer hours to the automotive academy. The company also has loaned vehicles to practice working on and has provided other resources including summer internships, field trips, mentors, references and connections to other automotive businesses.
“They are always looking for ways to help,” Johnson said.
K.C. Heidler, the son of George P. Heidler, sits on the board of the Orange County Automobile Dealers Association and has engaged other dealerships and businesses connected to the automotive industry in supporting the academy.
Last year, the dealers association donated $15,000 that provided $1,500 scholarships to each of 10 Valley High graduates who are now enrolled in the automotive technology program at Santa Ana College.
K.C. Heidler Jr. said there is a shortage of qualified automotive technicians at a time when someone with 10 years experience can earn upward of $80,000 a year.
The “grease monkey” image is outmoded, he said, indicating that much of the work also requires technology skills.
Gerardo Favela, a Valley High junior in the automotive academy, likes the cerebral and mechanical parts of the job.
Dressed in his blue work shirt and a pair of dark jeans, Favela, 18, joined a crew of students gathered one recent morning around a computer monitor showing the specs to align a Dodge Ram 1500 truck up on a rack in the state-of-the-art shop.
“Over here,” Favela said, “you actually get to work on a car. You get dirty.”