By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Luis Campos diagnoses a problem in Armando Hernandez’s award-winning auto shop program at Schurr High School in Montebello.
His students are an unlikely group of champions. Many are English language learners from East Los Angeles. Most are short of credits they need to graduate from Schurr High School in Montebello.
But when the high school students enroll in Armando Hernandez’s auto shop program, they get on track to graduate. They enter nationwide competitions to make cars run on green technology. And they beat students from top universities.
Hernandez, a member of the Montebello Teachers Association, teaches auto shop during the school day. But it’s his Transportation and Energy Program (TEP), an after-school vocational skills intervention program for struggling students, that’s getting attention while it prepares students for the future.
Every year, TEP students design and build an energy-efficient vehicle for the global Eco-marathon Americas contest sponsored by Shell. In 2008, his students designed a car that ran on liquid petroleum gas and won first place in that category at the event, outperforming teams of engineering students from UC Berkeley and Louisiana State University.
This year, students are hard at work on a car that runs on biodiesel — or cooking oil used for frying. Students are learning chemistry as they convert cooking oil to biofuel, says Hernandez, who also incorporates traditional science, math and English standards into his curriculum.
Hernandez encourages students to enroll in three nearby community colleges through a matriculation program he has created. They receive credit for “dual enrollment” at both high school and college campuses.
Since he also graduated from Schurr High School, Hernandez feels an obligation to give back. “I was a struggling student myself,” he explains. “I was not on a track to graduate, and had to attend adult school. But I went on to be successful, and I was the first in my family to graduate from college.”
He credits his former auto shop teacher with giving him motivation. “He used to joke with me that someday I’d come back and teach auto shop. I said, ‘You’re crazy, I’d never want to do that.’”
Now it’s his turn to motivate others.
“Mr. Hernandez is an inspiration to us,” says Chris Ortiz, a senior. “He prepares us for the outside world. When we go to competitions, people look at us like we’re a bunch of bad kids or troublemakers because we’re from East Los Angeles. But they stop looking at us that way when we beat them.”