Lockport Township High School's auto shop program propels seniors into professional car repair careers

A lot of high schools in the Chicago area offer auto shop. But at Lockport Township High School, they’re stepping on the gas when it comes to auto tech training. A number of seniors have already gained the certification needed to begin fixing cars professionally.

In Mark de la Vega’s advanced auto shop class, 13 seniors get their marching orders.

"So today what we have going on, we have two main vehicles we gotta look at," de la Vega said to the group of assembled students.

Moments later, the students headed into the school’s full-service auto repair shop where they learned skills that have already put them on a professional track.

"I’ve learned everything from brakes to engine diagnosis to air conditioning," said student Alec DeYoung. "Literally everything, from suspension, it’s awesome."

De la Vega has been teaching auto shop in Lockport for 21 years, but this year he decided to try something different.

The entire class took the test for an ASE certification, which stands for Automotive Service Excellence, that would allow them to work professionally.

"I went out on a limb and wanted these boys especially to try and gain certification," said de la Vega.

All 13 students took the test in class, and all 13 passed.

"I had figured there would be a few, a handful. But I was not expecting 13. That was quite a surprise," de la Vega said.

Student Landon Carrera said the class has led him to his calling.

"As soon as I touched that small engine, I disassembled it, I reassembled it, I watched it work. It just kind of turned a gear in my head. I found something I really wanted to do," Carrera said.

Now that certification has allowed many of the students to go to work professionally at local car dealerships and auto mechanics.

"Yeah, it’s kind of crazy," said DeYoung, who is working at a local Ford dealership. "Crazy to think I can go have a job somewhere with this education and how to use it. It’s all thanks to the auto program here."

And while most of the students plan on going to college or advanced training in trade school, they know they already have the skills that will open doors — and start engines.

"As soon as you get that ASE certification, it tells them, ‘hey, I’m actually trying to pursue this in the future,’" said student Landon Carrera Castellanos.

Student Dom Tucci says it’s also great because he’s learning with friends.

"Between all the schooling, certifications you get, just all the benefits. This program is completely endless what you can do with it. And obviously, all the friends you make. It’s just a lifetime experience. It’s awesome," Tucci said.

Many of the cars they’re working on belong to teachers at the high school, which shows just how much the students are trusted.

"It’s really fun to see all my teachers and they ask, ‘hey, how’s my car going?’ I say good. It’s still working," said DeYoung.

De la Vega said helping the students gain certification has been among his proudest achievements as a teacher.

"If I had to say what‘s special, it’s the students. The types of students I get every year makes this job fun. To me, this is not a job. Teaching is not a job for me, especially with these guys in this class," de la Vega said.