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Save PHS Auto helps and is helped by Petaluma’s Cruisin’ the Boulevard, the yearly salute to the film “American Graffiti.” The event, set for May 17-19 this year, includes a car show.

There will be a Save PHS Auto booth at Cruisin’ the Boulevard. Program donations can be sent to Cruisin’ the Boulevard – Save the Auto Shops, P.O. Box 4412, Petaluma, CA 94955-4412.

For more information, check out the Facebook page, Saving Petaluma High School’s Auto Shop Program, or email savephsauto@gmail.com.

For information on Cruisin’ the Boulevard, visit americangraffiti.net.

In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt was serving his third term as president, Joe DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak, “Citizen Kane” premiered and, following an attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the United States was drawn into World War II.

That same year at Petaluma High School, an auto shop program became part of the curriculum, although some believe a class had been at the school since the 1920s.

Last year, several of the program’s alumni were concerned about its future. The high school offers several types of career/technical education, or vocational, classes. And while that allows students the opportunity to learn a variety of real-world skills, it also limits both the number of students in classes and the number of classes available for instructors.

Enrollment was low, and a teacher was needed.

On Valentine’s Day 2017, Stephen Blume, 38, owner of Accu-Line Brake & Wheel, heard the auto shop program was in danger.

Keith Benson, 37, part of a group dedicated to saving the auto shop program, put the information on Facebook.

“Ten to 12 people showed up at the school board meeting,” Benson said, “although the topic wasn’t on the docket.”

When the board held a later meeting about the class’ future “30 to 40 supporters came,” Benson said. The classes were reinstated.

A separate meeting was held at the shop with industry leaders to discuss how to improve the classes and develop a realistic future plan. Petaluma High School put auto shop classes back on the schedule for the 2017-2018 school year and hired a new teacher.

When the teacher resigned mid-year, Fred Brunton, who’d taught the class from 1976 to 2015, stepped in to finish, and is still teaching.

Currently enough students for three classes are signed up for next year and the group hopes to gather enough to fill a full schedule of classes in the future.

Petaluma High offers a variety of trade classes in addition to auto shop, such as agricultural mechanics, engineering, floral design, metal shop and wood shop, plus welding.

“We’re not really going to certify a (student) directly,” said Petaluma High School Principal David Stirrat. “We just want to give them a taste.”

Actual certification in auto technology could be gained, for example, at Santa Rosa Junior College.

There’s a growing awareness of the importance of high school trade classes. A three-year study by the National Assessment of Vocational Education not only found that students who took vocational courses in high school saw their academic performance improve, but the same students had higher earnings than peers who did not take such courses.

“A lot of schools,” Blume said, “the only thing they care about is a four-year degree, and there are students who muscle through school not knowing about this.”

Benson emphasized auto shop isn’t just about cars.

“A car,” he said, “is a series of systems: HVAC, electrical, networking, mechanics, physical hydraulic principles, aerodynamics. There are so many things that can apply to outside the auto industry.”

And that’s not even mentioning work ethics, business principles, workplace organization and the fact that the trades are lucrative — and hiring.

“If you’re in the trades right now,” Benson said, “and you quit or are fired, by the time you get to the driveway, you could have another job.

“If you took just one year of auto shop you can get a job. The minimum wage for a mechanic is $22 an hour, with their own tools. In the area between Marin and San Jose, if you’re an average mechanic, you should be making over $100,000 a year. And manufacturers will pay to train you.”

He said there are 50 automotive businesses in Petaluma, and Santa Rosa probably has twice that.

“For every person coming into the industry, they say 15 people are retiring.”

“There are a lot of positives to this program,” Blume said, “and I think it would help parents to know that option is available. I knew kids who might not have gone to high school if they hadn’t had those classes.”

Tara Sager, 34, attended a school without an auto shop. She supports the program, but regrets not having the opportunity herself.

“From the female perspective, I’d love to know how to change my oil, change a tire on the side of the road,” she said. “It’s safety, and a life skill.”

“It’s not just women,” Blume said, “a lot of men are just as clueless. I try to explain things and they have no concept of what works and how. A customer the other day had his car towed in and I asked if he’d changed his oil. He admitted he hadn’t. It ruined his engine.”

“All of us who work on cars,” Blume said, “are handymen as well. We’ve learned other things: plumbing, electrical.”

What they learned in auto shop, gave them the confidence to learn other skills.

Dan Dickinson, 42, was one of those students who endured some classes because he could go to auto shop.

“I was not a good English student,” he said. “But a couple of years ago, my English teacher flagged me down and asked if I could help her with her car.”

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