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Auburn School District fills need in career and technical education

AUBURN, Wash. -- Not many high school kids get to say they work on cars for half of their day. Or even make jewelry or weld something. But in Auburn, students get to do that with state-of-the-art equipment.

In Ethan Earl’s welding class at Auburn High School, things are being made. But more importantly, lives are being changed. Not just for the kids, but the teacher's, too.

“I’ve actually been homeless since I was six. Lived in cars, lived in vans all of my life,” said Earl.

Back in 2007, Ethan Earl was a freshman and homeless, he said. At the time, he had a choice for an elective at Auburn High School: Either go into Spanish or welding.

Choosing welding at Auburn’s Career and Technical Education Program was a life-changing decision.

“Because of the CTE program, I was actually able to work my way out of that. I bought a house three years after high school in downtown Auburn here,” Earl said.

The CTE program is a highlight for the Auburn School District, with more than 20 different programs.

“We’ve got it in sports med, we’ve got it in auto, we’ve got it in aerospace, just all these different areas,” said Lew Keliher, Auburn’s Career and Technical Education assistant director.

They have even nontraditional ones like jewelry making, cosmetology, and the culinary arts. And the kids, they’re working with up-to-date stuff too.

“Even in our construction class, we’ve got 3-D printers, we’ve got lasers, we’ve got computer controlled mills, so those are all expensive items,” said Keliher.

It’s an investment now, because the demand for people to fill these positions is high.

“For every four machinists that are retiring, we have only one going back into the industry. We are in desperate need of welders,” said Earl.

Even automotive technology is seeing a resurgence. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 76,000 auto mechanics are needed every year between now and 2026.

“I continually get e-mails, phone calls, and requests all of the time. All different skill sets. Do you have somebody immediate who can work for us?” said Kurt Edwards, automotive and small gas engine instructor at Auburn High School

Auburn’s automotive technology department is impressive. It has many different bays to fix cars, motorcycles and engines.

“I never knew there was an automotive class for high school. But seeing what’s around and seeing there’s an actual shop in high school. It`s cool, “ said student Julio Garcia.

Garcia attends nearby Auburn Riverside High School. However, Auburn High has the only auto tech facility in the district.

So he makes his way here in the mornings. His future, he said, is all about cars.

“I want to go to a technical school. After that I want to work for a dealer. I want to work for Lexus,” said Garcia.

Fixing cars are also in the future for Auburn High senior Bryan Pineda. He plans on going to Renton Technical School after he graduates.

“Mr. Edwards is always working with local businesses to help us be placed in jobs, to help us get jobs in the future,” he said.

At a time when school budgets are thinly strapped and the CTE is being cut, the Auburn School District doubled down on it, lifelong learning with a hands-on approach.

“They come out in the industry, and you hear that they’re working, and they have jobs and they can buy a car and maybe they’re thinking of buying a house. That just makes it feel like this is worth it,” said Edwards.

Many of the instructors in the CTE program are industry professionals. According to the district, the CTE budget is about $8.9 million. There are enhanced state, federal and local funds as well that contribute to the program’s success.

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