This spring, students in Jarod Brown’s automotive technology class piled on the back of a bright yellow 1954 Chevy truck, and Brown took it for a spin around the North Mecklenburg High School campus.
The truck was in the school’s auto shop when Brown arrived last fall at his new job -- auto tech teacher. The truck didn’t run and was covered with rust and algae.
“When we got it started, we were so happy and excited,” said Gregory Shanks, 16, a student in Brown’s class.
Under Brown’s direction, students worked on the truck all year.
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“Everything the truck needed was lesson plans I was teaching,” Brown said. “It worked out great.”
Brown said the students couldn’t stop smiling as the truck made its inaugural drive.
Trades can be very rewarding
Automotive technology, along with vocational programs in horticulture, culinary arts and cosmetology, is making a comeback through North Meck’s four-year-old technical institute. Such classes were once a significant part of a high school curriculum, but they were dropped for decades as focuses shifted.
North Meck’s automotive technology program, which had 65 students, is part of the growing CMS School Option Programs in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. It draws from Hough, Hopewell, North Meck and Mallard Creek attendance zones. Students are admitted through the magnet school lottery. All the students are transported to North Meck.
The program works with Central Piedmont Community College and businesses to properly prepare students for a competitive job market. Todd Porter, CMS options coordinator for the North Learning Community, is one of the leaders in the movement to restore vocational classes.
“I believe that we need to have students learn a trade,” he said.
For some, a trade could be a lifelong career. For others, it could be a fallback if they can’t get a job after college.
Porter cited one student at North Mecklenburg who is taking five advanced placement classes along with cosmetology. She plans to work as a hair stylist to earn money while she’s at N.C. State.
Automotive technology student Michael Castelli, 17, helped his grandfather fix cars. He and his younger brother began attending North Meck last year.
“I’m not really math smart and all that, but when I come here I can work with my hands and do almost anything,” he said.
Castelli plans to attend CPCC and wants to be a diesel mechanic.
Right where he belongs
Brown, 56, said he had not intended to spend his retirement as a high school teacher.
He had sold Automotive International, his business off South Boulevard, which specializes in restoration and bodywork on exotic cars.
A longtime metal sculpture artist, Brown and his business partner Jean Robitaille also created the five triple-thick, stainless-steel plates that depict the history of NASCAR on the outside of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte. He planned to continue creating custom metalwork art.
Brown said a headhunter contacted him about the job at North Mecklenburg. He was all in when he was told at the interview that the school was looking for mentors, not teachers.
“That’s what I am,” he said.
Brown’s mentoring runs from talking to students about life when they gather around his desk at lunch to parking his 1940 Ford pickup in the school auto shop hoping to inspire students. When Brown was 15, he restored the truck, built a tiny house in the pickup bed and spent seven and a half years working and driving around North America.
He picked up his auto work skills along the way.
“Working with your hands is an honorable thing,” Brown said. “It’s very rewarding.”
He delivers that message to his students, many who are seeking a future and career direction. Brown often uses his many connections in the auto industry to find jobs for students.
North Mecklenburg High Principal Sonya McInnis calls Brown a “rock star” and a huge asset to the school. “Mr. Brown has engaged his students and driven them to be successful in their own learning,” she said.
Through the Lake Norman Chamber Foundation, Brown raffled off the 1954 Chevy truck in June, netting $13,200. After reimbursements for parts and other repair costs, Brown was left with $9,000.
He said he will spend that money on tools, equipment and the next project car for the North Meck automotive technology program. He also has bought starter tool sets for six of his students who recently got jobs as mechanics.
The winner of the raffle was Jim Wilkerson, owner of Blackhawk Hardware, who bought 35 tickets, Brown said. The yellow truck now is often parked parked outside Blackhawk Hardware, off Park Road in south Charlotte.
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.