SAN DIEGO — The days when auto shop was a major part of the high school curriculum have long since been consigned to revivals and reruns of the musical "Grease."
But auto shop's long skid in the face of budget cuts and a shift toward college-prep classes may be reversing.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the San Diego Unified School District, where officials have built automotive program facilities at three high schools and hope to upgrade shops at two other schools if voters approve a bond issue next month.
John Abad, who is 17 and studying auto body repair at a $3.7-million facility opened last month at Morse High, knows why this is being done.
"As long as people buy cars, those cars are going to break," Abad told the ribbon-cutting gathering. "We're going to be the technicians who do the repair right the first time."
Decades ago, many districts viewed training in car maintenance as a way to impart a job skill for the majority of students who were not college-bound.
But tight budgets and a pervasive emphasis on academics, especially college preparation, contributed to the decline of auto shop. During years of overcrowding in the Los Angeles Unified School District, many shop rooms were converted to classrooms, said former district administrator Santiago Jackson.
Yet many students still need vocational training, not to mention something to interest them enough to earn a high school diploma.
These are not your father's or grandfather's auto shop classes, where guys install glass-pack mufflers and cheater pipes on their cars.
"It's much more electronic, digital, computer-driven," said Rob Atterbury, executive director of Berkeley-based ConnectEd, the California Center on College and Career. The nonprofit is working with school districts throughout the state to bring back auto shop.
In L.A. Unified, most auto training is available through adult school locations, where about 1,800 students are enrolled. At high schools, efforts are underway to link surviving auto tech classes with physics, algebra and geometry — all topics important to understanding the modern internal combustion engine. This linkage with such core subjects could preserve auto shop, because it can win state approval as part of a college-prep curriculum.
An auto tech program at Belmont High is moving toward such certification. Last year, it enrolled 60 students who restored a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle, installing an electric engine, said Felipe Caceres, principal of Belmont High's SAGE Academy.
With budgets still tight, school districts have relied on partnerships with private industry and community colleges, as well as bond issues. At the Morse ribbon-cutting in San Diego, officials thanked State Farm Insurance and other members of the Transportation Industry Advisory Board.
Funding for the Morse facility came in part from a $1.5-billion bond issue approved by voters in 1998 for maintenance projects at 161 schools and construction of 12 new schools; a similar measure would raise $2.8 billion if passed in November.
Morse and other auto shop programs aim to prepare students for immediate employment or an apprenticeship, or to provide the science instruction that will help those students heading to college.
"It's not just a skill," said Shawn Loescher, director of college, career and technical education in the San Diego Unified School District. "It's a deep understanding of how things connect."
Such connections are embodied in "common core" standards recently adopted by 45 states, including California. Students, for example, are supposed to apply their knowledge of history to an understanding of literature, or principles of music to math.
Still, just like in the old days, the hands-on stuff can be the most engaging for many students.
San Diego officials believe the return of auto shop and other practical vocational classes has helped cut the dropout rate, which now stands at 6%, the lowest of any big-city district in the state.
Six of the district's auto shops focus on car maintenance and repair, while another — Morse — specializes in auto body repair, a demanding skill in the age of unibody construction.
The programs are spread throughout the city, from Morse and Crawford on the eastern edge to Point Loma and La Jolla in the west, with Mira Mesa, Clairemont and Madison in between.
The $3.7-million facility at Madison High opened two years ago. The floors are clean, the tools professional-quality. Cars are donated. Among other projects, students prepare for an annual competition sponsored by Hotrodders of America.
Students have different motives for signing up for Omar Sevilla's class. Jeremy Ross, 17, plans to enlist in the Marines and work on tanks; Kioni Bishop, 17, and Carlie Brickley, 16, want to be able to repair their own cars; and William Codianne, 16, wants to attend a trade school and make auto repair a career. Sevilla teaches four auto-shop classes, about 140 students, including a dozen girls.
"We're getting them ready for the real world," he said.