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The Power of Partnership, Innovation and Learning

School Desk: My Introduction to Auto Shop at Ukiah High School - the Soul of Education

I hurried through the walkways to the mysterious warehouse-like buildings at the back end of the Ukiah High School campus. I was characteristically late, even though I had avoided most of the daily slow chaos of the afternoon parking lot. I get a bit lost at the far ends of Ukiah High. But Mr. Harwell called out to me from his classroom door and offered me a cold can of sparkling water. Although he’s been teaching Automotive Repair at Ukiah High since 2018, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to meet Mr. Harwell. My afternoon’s goal was to learn enough to write a brief column for the newspaper. I thought I was going to interview the auto shop teacher, but instead, I spent an hour with a poet in a foreign land. 

Automotive Repair is a Career Technical Education course that we all recognize and know as Auto Shop. At Ukiah High, we offer both a beginning and advanced level course. Auto Shop is popular - more than 200 students want to take the course, and UHS Admin is trying to figure out how to add more capacity next year. The class is physically designed around a classroom space that includes a small cluster of desks, a pick-up truck for hands-on learning, and a whole collection of auto engines on display. (But not only engines, carburetors, and other large metal auto parts of some kind? To my great regret, I never took Auto in high school.) The “shop” is next door to the classroom.  A half-dozen cars are mounted on lifts, most in various stages of disassembly. This practice fleet includes a canary-yellow Camaro donated by the California Highway Patrol a few years ago. (There’s a convoluted backstory to this donation. Something about confiscated and illegal car parts. The Camaro’s only legal destiny was destruction or donation to an educational institution.) Mr. Harwell tells me that some of the equipment and machinery in the shop are the best in the industry. The shop space is awe-inspiring, even to someone like me with automotive knowledge that is truly below minimal. 

I drive a gold Toyota minivan that’s over a decade old. I’m too short to open my van’s hood, and I’m not sure I’ve ever successfully done so. I graduated from Yale University, and I have a Master’s Degree from UC Berkeley, but I confess that I don’t really know what a wheel drum is. I couldn’t point out a chassis or an axle, or a carburetor. I understand the definition of the word alignment, but I have no idea what it means in the context of tires. Auto Shop is a foreign language to me, and I am in awe of the kids who become proficient in this highly technical and critically practical language and culture. What students learn in this class - a new language, complicated math, problem-solving, communication skills, physical dexterity, and attention to detail - is extraordinary.

Auto Shop is much more than a class about cars. Auto Shop at Ukiah High School is about language, and connection, and belonging, and a classroom leader who describes himself as a “lover of all, judger of none.” Mr. Harwell believes that the point of education is to make better human beings. He highlighted the critical need to create a mentally, emotionally, and physically safe environment for young people. “Kids have to know that you love and care about them,” Lonnie tells me. He loves the process of watching kids become adults. He says the connection you can make with kids is magical as a teacher. Sometimes, he told me, when the kids are deeply engaged in working on the cars and machinery, “I look around this shop and say to myself - I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” I only spent a little over an hour with Mr. Harwell, but I could tell that his skills were far more than technical. He is dedicated to his students’ growth as human beings, even more so than to their potential as future auto mechanics.

The yellow Camaro might catch your immediate attention, but the most extraordinary element of Auto Shop is the unassuming conductor of the Auto Shop orchestra itself. Mr. Harwell, and teachers like him, are what really matters in public education. One of the ironies of being a School Board Trustee is that I spend a lot of time on objectively important items that don’t truly matter to the heart and soul of a school. Budgets are important; facilities are critical to infrastructure and safety, and personnel decisions need to be made. But what really matters is the connection between a child and the adults who provide them the opportunity to learn and grow. I came to gather the facts about Auto Shop at Ukiah High School, but what I encountered was the soul of education.