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Originally published September 29, 2009 at 4:38 PM | Page modified September 30, 2009 at 12:19 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Auto shop and other industrial arts slated for a comeback as 'green tech'

In the Seattle Public Schools, the industrial arts, long out of fashion in the push for academics, may make a comeback as "green tech."

Seattle Times editorial columnist

An air wrench screeches at a lug nut as students attach the wheels to a '79 Olds Cutlass with a diesel engine. The car in the next space has had a brake job, and a student has prepared a bill. Don Reynoldson checks the total. The kid has figured it right.

Reynoldson, 58, once ran Don's Quality Automotive at 12th and Madison. Now he's running the auto shop at Seattle's Ingraham High School — teaching the kids about engines, tools, safety, a bit of math and also, he says, "some work ethic."

It's an American story. Auto shop used to be in virtually all high schools. But with the push for academics — a push that was necessary — other classes have fallen away.

The Seattle school district's goal is to have every graduate college-ready — not that everyone will go to college, but that everyone can. In pursuit of that vision, Seattle's public high schools now have too few career and technical classes, says Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction. "There can't be just one path you can take," he says.

This has happened in other places. For 20 years, Joe McIntosh, owner of Seattle's Action Auto Parts and Machine, has followed the demise of industrial arts — auto shop, wood shop and metal shop — in the Edmonds district. Of five high schools, only one has an auto class. And that's a shame, McIntosh says. "Auto shop is what got me through high school. I loved working on cars."

Industrial arts have been out of fashion for a long time. They run afoul of the egalitarian idea expressed in such sloppy slogans as "all children can learn" — slogans that make vocational programs feel like discrimination.

People who know nothing of industry have assumed it offers no futures that any kid should want.

"There's a mindset that these are dirty jobs," says Johnny Bianchi, vice president of operations, B&G Machine, Seattle. But skilled machine work pays better than a lot of retail and service jobs. And of B&G's 50 employees, none has been let go during the recession.

Industrial people worry about the labor pool. Community colleges replenish that pool, and it's a good thing they do. But, says Dorn, many kids who don't get as far as community college. They drop out. "They're bored," he says. They need something in high school other than straight academics.

One answer is an off-site technical school called a skill center. Everett has one. SeaTac has one. Seattle doesn't.

Seattle thinks of itself as postindustrial, which it's not. It has the most heavy industry, including maritime, of any city in the region — and often seems the last to appreciate it. Industry has had to compete, and does. It is not dying. It needs some attention — and maybe it has found a way to get it.

It has become "green."

Seattle Public Schools plans to open its first skill centers in 2011 with three paths: Medical Tech, Information Tech and Green Tech.

Green Tech is the industrial arts.

On Oct. 9, the Georgetown campus of South Seattle Community College will host a Green Jobs Expo. One attraction will be Ingraham High's '79 Olds diesel. The auto shop students are using a refitted water heater to refine biodiesel from fish oil, which they will use to fuel the car. A "green" car.

Is it a gimmick? Sure. Whether fish biodiesel will replace fossil fuels I doubt, but Don Reynoldson's students will learn about cars.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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