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Laurens District 55 High School doesn’t have the fanciest shop, a large team of instructors or hundreds of students in its program, but it has something that makes it the best school in the country. Laurens District 55 High School has heart. Something that has helped a small program make a huge difference.
The School of the Year award, sponsored by WIX Filters and O’Reilly Auto Parts, is really about the people who drive an automotive program’s success, which is why a small school in Laurens, South Carolina, became the big winner of the 2019 School of the Year.
A school that offers a real-world shop environment and has a number of successful technicians and shop owners coming out of its impressive program, Laurens District 55 High School is our 12th recipient of the annual award and only the fifth high school winner. The program claimed the honor out of 196 entries from 122 different schools across the U.S.
“I can tell you that the passion of the instructors and the students is what really shines through,” says Mike Lerch, Brand Manager, WIX Filters. “In addition to that, if you look at the alumni base that’s come out of Laurens, you’ve got a very, very diverse alumni group working in the industry. Some of them are entrepreneurs, some of them are working private sector or public sector, but they’ve actually taken the skills that they’ve learned here at this school and made a career out of it.”
During the celebration at the school on Nov. 22, representatives from WIX Filters, O’Reilly Auto Parts and Tomorrow’s Tech congratulated automotive students and automotive technology instructor Thomas Chandler on their hard work and determination to train future technicians.
While the students were aware of their school’s recognition as the 2019 School of the Year, the day they were honored was a surprise. The students entered the auto shop on Friday, Nov. 22, completely unaware that they would be celebrated that morning. The program included remarks from representatives on behalf of WIX, Tomorrow’s Tech, O’Reilly Auto Parts and local officials.
“We here at Laurens District 55 High School Automotive Technology are thrilled to be named the Tomorrow’s Technician 2019 School of the Year,” said Thomas Chandler, automotive technology instructor. “All the credit goes to my wonderful students and my very supportive school principal, Tina Faulkner. Without their support, we would not have this award-winning program.”
As the 2019 School of the Year, Laurens won a $5,000 donation to the school’s automotive technology program from WIX Filters; merchandise from O’Reilly and WIX Filters; and travel for the school’s instructor and a guest to Las Vegas to attend Babcox Media’s recognition dinner during hte 2019 AAPEX Show.
Training Future Techs
Laurens’ auto program thrives on a small classroom and real-life experience. There are about 55 total students in the automotive program. First-year auto students make up the Laurens automotive I class. During this introductory course the students learn all about service advisor training as well as general maintenance, repair, tools and ASE certification over the course of two semesters.
From there about 15 of those students will advance to automotive II, where they learn steering, suspension and electrical. Third years continue these skills, adding on engine performance, heating and cooling and additional skills they’ll need to succeed as working technicians.
“There’s always a new problem so I can’t get bored with it. And it’s just something I love to do,” says Olivia Warner, junior auto student.
While students are learning the basics of automotive service, sole instructor Thomas Chandler also runs the program like a real shop. Students serve as service advisors and technicians to get customer work (typically other teachers) completed throughout the week, talking with customers, writing repair tickets and completing repair orders.
“We do a regular repair order through our system that is given to the customer and the cars are cleaned and prepped before they leave here and hopefully get all our fingerprints off of it. It’s run pretty much like a regular repair shop,” says Chandler.
“Every day we have something different,” adds Eli Tavenner, senior auto student. “It’s not always the same thing, so that’s pretty interesting. It’s helped me because before I came in here, I didn’t have many communication skills about relaying information from adviser to the technicians.”
Chandler has deep roots in Laurens and the automotive industry. His background includes working at car dealerships and opening his own automotive repair shop.
“I just started out of my house, out of my garage…Within a year I got a four-bay shop, and then about five years after that I built a nine-bay shop on the other side of town and was selected at that time for NAPA/ASE Technician of the Year.”
Soon after Chandler put his business in his son’s hands and started his next career: automotive instructor. His wife was the former home economics teacher at Laurens and when an opening came up, he pursued the opportunity.
“I always wanted to teach, so she put my name in the bag and I interviewed and got it. And that’s how it’s all started.”
He’s taught at the school for 15 years, putting in a lot of work to get the program where it is today. On day one there were hardly any tools and no wrenches in sight. He spent the summer cleaning the entire auto lab and painting all the walls. With the little money the program had he bought enough tools for the students to get started and has since secured funding to help them keep the shop stocked with hand tools, tire changers, lifts and enough equipment to run as a shop. A big proponent of the program’s success is principal Tina Faulkner, who’s fully behind career technical education and a major champion of Chandler’s work.
Chandler and the school’s commitment to the program has created a great environment for students to not just learn skills, but make lasting friendships. Ask any of the advanced students what they think of their classmates and they’ll tell you they’re basically family.
“I love the people in my class. Everyone here,” says Ryan Elledge, junior auto student. “I had no idea who they were when I first joined, but over three years I feel like I’ve known them forever. I love the environment. I love Mr. Chandler. I feel like he’s one of the best instructors and best teachers I’ve ever had.”
From Student to Career
What stood out to the School of the Year judges the most this year, was the high number of students who find success after graduation and credit Laurens for that success.
Students are across the state and still near home working in the automotive industry as a result of the Laurens automotive program.
“My favorite thing about the program that helped me in my career is how thorough Mr. Chandler is,” says Ethan Weirick, 2012 graduate, diesel mechanic, City of Greenville. “When I’m diagnosing electrical stuff, the things that he taught me….just everything that he told me about the way it was going to be and what to look for is what I use today. Anytime I have a problem, I think back to how would Mr. Chandler fix this?”
Katharine Galvin 2010 graduate and now tool inspector for Mapal Inc., didn’t realize how much the program would give her and help her career.
“I wasn’t planning on making a career when I started,” says Galvin. “It was something I wanted to learn because I was a female. I wanted to do a few things on my own… A lot of it helped through my career, and a lot of the things he taught me in automotive actually helped me understand what these tools are used for.”
“I am actually really proud to be an alumni of Laurens District 55 because they need the acknowledgment…especially the faculty here. A lot of them really do need the extra acknowledgement to realize that they’re actually touching people’s lives.”
More About School of the Year
The School of the Year program is open to all high schools and post-secondary schools with a subscription to Tomorrow’s Tech magazine. The top 20 schools were asked to submit a video highlighting their technical programs and judges selected four finalists, or one from each region, from the video entries.
Runners-up for the 2019 School of the Year included: North Kansas City Schools – Career and Technical Education Center – Kansas City, MO; Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES – New Hartford, NY; East Valley Institute of Technology – Mesa, AZ. Each runner-up will receive a $500 gift card from WIX Filters.
For more information about the School of the Year program, visit tomorrowstechnician.com/tomorrows-tech-school-of-the-year/. Nominations for the 2020 School of the Year are now open.