Jaxon Alford has always enjoyed working with cars, and the guidance of a teacher at Central High School has given him a head start on a career in the automotive industry.
Alford is a senior at Central, but during his sophomore year he enrolled in Maintenance and Light Repair, the first in a series of classes taught by Tracy Kelly.
Alford said the class helped sharpen his skills in auto repair, and he enjoyed the chance to work with his hands.
“It’s pretty rewarding when you find a problem, take it apart and get it back together and it’s running perfect,” he said.
But Alford’s repair work isn’t just for school credit. Central had an existing partnership with North Knox Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, which offers apprenticeships to talented students. Alford began working at the dealership’s service department a year ago, and has already obtained his Level 1 certification as a technician.
Josh DeHart, of North Knox Chrysler, said Alford is “the model candidate” for the apprenticeship program, and that he will be equipped to work as a full-time technician when he graduates from high school.
He is also on track to achieve additional certifications from Chrysler, which will provide skills that are in high demand throughout the industry.
DeHart said the apprenticeship has been beneficial for the dealership, not only because of the quality of Alford’s work but also because students bring a different perspective to the shop.
“He asks a lot of questions, he’s very inquisitive,” said DeHart. “So it changes the way our managers and supervisors present things because he’s asking questions … It’s definitely caused us to look at how we’re doing things and how do we attract students like him to get into this business?”
The partnership also reflects The 865 Academies initiative, which was launched by Knox County Schools last year and will create career-themed academies in district high schools. The goal is to prepare students for success after high school, whether that means enrolling in college or trade school, enlisting in service to their country, or finding employment in a high-wage career with an entrepreneurial mindset.
Next week, eight schools in the initiative’s first cohort – including Central – will announce the academies to be offered in the coming years.
Alford said it has made a big difference to learn from a teacher who had previous experience in the automotive industry, and who enjoys sharing that knowledge – “I don’t think I could ask for a better instructor.”
Bearden High School senior Vladimir Serov is the first student in Knox County Schools to receive four certifications from CompTIA, one of the IT industry’s top trade associations.
Bearden math and cybersecurity teacher Dr. Tim Cathcart affectionately calls these certifications the “Core Four,” which includes ITF+, A+, Network+, and Security+. The exams cover a range of IT, hardware, and software basics for those getting started in the field.
Serov took the first exam in the spring semester of 2022.
“I crammed about 40 hours’ worth of video into three or four days. The test was the day after that,” he said. “I passed with a significant margin, which was surprising.”
Serov went on to pass the remaining exams during the year. He completed a fifth test, Linux+, in December.
CTE specialist Chris Tucker, who helped implement the partnership with CompTIA, is proud that Serov’s hard work has paid off.
“I see a very bright future for Vlad, but if there are other students that see this, I’m hopeful that they are encouraged that it is doable,” Tucker said.
Serov echoed Tucker’s hopes, saying, “I had no experience, no skill, which means that anyone can do the same thing I did.”
Serov and other classmates who are also working toward certifications recommended signing up for a computer science class or joining a cyber club or a CyberPatriot team for students who may be interested in the field but are unsure of where to start.
The CTE department is working to add computer science classes to more high schools in the district in coming years to accommodate the growing interest in the field.
“Knox County and Chris Tucker are really doing a good job of getting the word out to individual schools,” Stephen Schneiter, CompTIA’s Instructor Network Program Manager, said. “Bearden is really taking the lead on it.”
Earning certifications in high school, no matter the industry, helps students find employment in a high-wage and in-demand profession post-graduation.
“These certifications give you a leg up on life, and they help you be able to maximize your potential as a contributing member of society,” Cathcart said. “They are hopefully getting a better start in life.”
Bearden’s success in this field could be attributed to Cathcart’s passion for his students and Tucker’s work to establish partnerships with organizations in the industry.
Andy Benson, a senior who has passed three exams and is working toward his fourth certification in the “Core Four,” is thankful for his teacher.
“I think what Dr. Cathcart is doing is amazing,” Benson said. “I didn’t even think of computer science as something I wanted to go into until last year. He’s such a great teacher that I think I might be doing this as a job in the future.”
Cathcart came to Bearden after 32 years in the Air Force. Following his retirement from the military, he began looking for an opportunity to continue to serve in his community.
This opportunity was found in the classroom.
Local industry partners have also volunteered their time in the classroom to “light a fire in those individuals,” Tucker said.
These partnerships have also provided grants and funding, vouchers for students’ exams, and testing spaces.
Hundreds of students from across East Tennessee will gather in Powell for a regional tournament this month, but they won’t be scoring goals or making tackles.
Instead, students from KCS and other school districts will be participating in the 2019 Top Wrench competition, which tests the skills of CTE students in a variety of challenges related to the auto repair industry.
Founded in 1991, Top Wrench is designed to foster teamwork and technical skills for students who are interested in pursuing an auto-related career after high school. Program director Maria Richardson said that while interest in CTE-related fields has grown in recent years, the auto repair industry needs more workers.
The competition, she said, not only offers networking opportunities, but provides a community for students who may not be interested in activities like band or sports.
“I think they enjoy being around other students who share their interests and their passion, and they get to interact with businesses … so they can possibly make connections with future employment opportunities,” she said.
Students compete in six categories:
Engine Start, in which competitors work to fix a “bugged” engine;
Computer Control, using scanners to diagnose an engine problem;
Pit Crew Challenge, a timed, NASCAR-style wheel-changing competition;
Welding Fabrication, a judged contest featuring pre-made pieces that demonstrate welding skills;
Custom Paint, a judged contest featuring pre-made pieces that demonstrate paint skills; and
Valve Cover Race, a soapbox-derby style race using modified engine valve covers.
James Miller, a senior at Gibbs High School, participated in last year’s Pit Crew competition, as part of a team that earned a third-place trophy. He’s part of a Maintenance and Light Repair course at Gibbs that’s taught by Rick Honeycutt, and said it’s one of his favorite classes because it relates to his interests.
And when it comes to career role models, he doesn’t have to look far. Honeycutt worked for 37 years in auto dealerships, starting as a Mercedes technician and working his way up to supervisor at a Toyota dealership before making the shift to teaching.
Honeycutt said that for some students the class will provide a foundation for a good career. But even for students who don’t work in the auto field, learning the basics of maintenance “could save them a lot of money in their lives, just doing the small things.”
That’s part of the appeal for McKenna West, a Gibbs senior who enjoys using computer systems to diagnose engine problems. While she doesn’t expect to work on cars as a career, she knows the skills will come in handy later.
“I enjoy the class because it allows me to learn how to do stuff myself so when I get out of high school and something on my car breaks, I can just buy the parts and fix it myself instead of spending an arm and a leg on the parts and labor,” she said.
This year’s Top Wrench competition will take place on Oct. 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Crown College.
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