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Student, 14, Hopes to Bring Home a Medal With Skills in Metal

Hoder is a regular contributor to San Gabriel Valley View

First came the metal. Now Phat Le is hoping for the medal.

Every day during his lunch hour and often after his last class, the shy, slender El Monte High School freshman worked steadily in a windowless room, sharpening his skills plying sheets of galvanized steel.

Unlike his schoolmates in the sheet-metal shop, Le was not making simple metal trays or ornamental hanging planters. Instead, he was fashioning metal into ducts used in heating and cooling systems.

“Most kids want to make something they can take home to Mom,” said Paul Bartsch, an industrial arts teacher who has been helping Le to prepare for the U.S. Skill Olympics, which began Monday in Tulsa, Okla.

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“It takes an exceptional kid to work this hard at making air-conditioning ducts.”

Le, 14, became interested in working with sheet metal while taking a survey class designed to introduce freshmen to various vocational skills, including automotive service, drafting and woodwork. With the encouragement of Bartsch, Le joined the school’s Vocational Industrial Clubs of America chapter--better known on campus as the VICA club--a national organization that sponsors regional, state and national competitions in vocational skills.

“At first I didn’t hope to win anything,” Le said, as he cut into a piece of metal. “I was just havingfun.”

But after winning gold medals this year in VICA’s regional and state contests, Le’s attitude has changed. “Now I am really eager to win,” he said. Besides practicing cutting, shaping, fitting and soldering metal, Le spends his evenings at home drafting and reading books about sheet metal.

He is the first student from El Monte High in the national competition, and the youngest person in the state to compete in the sheet-metal category.

“Sheet metal is a very tough competition,” said Jerry Jones, the state VICA director. “It’s very unusual to have a 14-year-old kid in this competition.

“You need to know geometry, drafting, how to read blueprints. . . . Even if he doesn’t place in the nationals, it’s a big accomplishment just getting here.”

Jones said 46 high school students from California are competing this year at the national VICA Olympics in as many as 38 categories. In addition to Le, two other students from the San Gabriel Valley were to take part.

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Stacie Wong, a 17-year-old senior at Alhambra High School, was in the job interview category, in which participants are judged on their job interview skills. Rosanne Aleman, a 16-year-old junior, also of Alhambra High, was to compete in the prepared speech category.

Le said his mother, a seamstress, sets an example for him because she is a hard worker. “She tells me to stay in school, not to hang out with the wrong crowd or get involved in drugs.”

“I want to get a head start,” said Le, who has a 3.0 grade-point average and also is on the tennis team. “I want to be ahead of people, not behind them.”

Kevin Pendergast, El Monte High’s VICA adviser, said vocational skills help build self-esteem in students who don’t usually do well in academics. It also gives them a shot at a good job when they get out of school, he said.

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“Not everyone is going on to college,” Pendergast said. “We still need skilled workers in this country. Not everyone is going to be a scientist, mathematician or engineer.”

But, at the same time, vocational skills can be important for college-bound students, Pendergast added.

Le, who plans to become an engineer, agreed. “In the field of engineering, you need more than book knowledge,” he said. “You need to know how to read blueprints. You need to know how metal works and how machines work.”

And, though he aspires to go to college one day, Le has set his sights on a more immediate goal. “I want to win,” he said. “I want to bring home a medal.”

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