Silicon Valley Tech School Pushes Through Pandemic

Silicon Valley Tech School Pushes Through Pandemic

The pandemic has impacted tech schools throughout the country as they adapt to a whole new world.

Online classrooms, drive-by graduations and online testing have become the norm, and many administrators are saying that some of these changes will stick long after the virus has passed.

Nathan Chukes is the auto body refinishing instructor at Silicon Valley Career Technical Education (SVCTE) in San Jose, CA, with three decades of industry experience and 18 years as a teacher there. He runs the program with another instructor, Robert McTaggart.

Chukes is well-known in the world of collision repair instruction for being a tough instructor who commands excellence, but many of his former students say only wonderful things about him.

It’s been a new road to travel for Chukes and his students, but by adapting and changing his approach, things are working.

“This year with the pandemic it has been very challenging and difficult for high school students throughout our country,” he said. “For me, as an instructor, I faced similar challenges, but I had to find a way to deliver instruction to my students. With only a quarter of a semester left of our school year, all hands-on and shop instruction was halted, due to the virus. At that point all instruction became viral with Zoom lessons and audio lectures.”

Every year, Chukes gives awards to his star pupils, he said.

“In the two classes I teach daily, there were four students in my program that stood out above all,” he said. “They never gave up, never complained and never doubted that they had enough skills and knowledge to continue forward to graduate and prepare for the next chapter in their lives.”

Chukes gives excellence awards every semester and seems to be a pretty good judge of talent, because several past recipients have gone on to be body shop owners, gifted painters and top technicians over the years, he said.

This year’s award winners are:

  • Junior Ever Martir from San Jose High School in San Jose, CA, received the award for Outstanding Student in Chukes’s AM Refinishing class
  • Senior Manuel Soto from Prospect High School in Saratoga, CA, received the award for Outstanding Student in Chukes’s PM Refinishing class
  • Senior Jose Gonzalez from San Jose High School in San Jose, CA, received the Achievement award in Chukes’s AM Refinishing class
  • Senior Manuel Madera from Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, CA, received the Achievement award in Chukes’s PM Refinishing class

Every year, the school has an awards ceremony, but because of the pandemic, Chukes delivered the plaques to the winners at their homes, accompanied by signs to signify the moment.

“It was of great pleasure to hand-deliver these custom signs to the homes of my award winners for the 2019-20 school year,” he said. “These four students deserved these awards, so I was going to do anything I could to get them in their hands.”

By teaching high school-level students the latest technological changes in the industry and working with local body shops and vendors, Chukes is making all the right moves, and receiving unprecedented industry support as a result.

Chukes was a journeyman painter for many years before he was hired at SVCTE. He has ASE certifications in both structural and non-structural repair and continually refines his classes to accommodate the industry as repair processes, tools and equipment change at a frenetic rate.

Formerly known as the Central County Occupational Center before changing its name eight years ago, SVCTE currently offers a two-semester program for high school students from six school districts in the South Bay Area interested in careers in the collision repair industry.

After teaching for so many years, Chukes said this is no longer a job and more like a calling.

"I have been doing this so long that it's in my DNA," he said. "We have seen so many first semester students who have come here with very little knowledge and just two years later, they're totally employable and have developed some confidence.

"At here, they get to work on actual vehicles and they're using the identical tools that they will be using at a shop. Our goal here is to duplicate the real world out there as much as we possibly can, so teach them only OE procedures and always focus on safety and working in an organized way.

"We also make sure to teach them life skills that they are going to need out in the working world, such as being punctual and communicating clearly. We want them to have the skills, but we also want them to be successful as people too."

Once the students have completed the program after one or two years, depending on what they choose to learn, Chukes and McTaggert will assist them in finding internships and jobs at local body shops.

"We are constantly reaching out to the body shops, and many of them are willing to help us with old parts that the students can practice on, for example," Chukes said. "When we see a graduate that is working at a local shop and we get good feedback about their performance and attitude, that is very satisfying."

Ed Attanasio

Columnist
Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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