School for alternative education adds car care center

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Ivy Jones likes to show off her auto-mechanics skills from a "classroom" that replicates a fully equipped car care center. Standing in an inspection bay, Jones, 19, handles the equipment with an expertise that she has developed while taking the 12-month course.

"I never thought I would be interested in cars, but I have learned so much," she said. "I know what goes on under the hood."

Jones, the only young woman in a class of 13 automotive trainees, is studying at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives Youth in Transition School in Woodlawn. The school provides training for students who are unable to participate in traditional school programs, often because of emotional and developmental disabilities. It added the $500,000 car care center to its campus in the Rutherford Business Park in September.

Jones expects to complete the course early and join the work force by the beginning of the year.

"She is working circles around the guys in the program and really knows her way around cars," said instructor Tony Jones, who is not related to the student.

The prospective mechanics are among about 100 students, ages 14 to 21, who attend the transitional school from at least 15 public school districts in Maryland. Founded in 1994, the school offers six vocational certification programs in various trades, including barbering, horticulture and culinary arts.

"All kids are not going to college," said Earl El-Amin, vice president for program development. "Our programs help train them, certify them in a trade and assist them in finding employment."

Visitors touring the school Monday were treated to light fare prepared by culinary students and saw the handiwork of those studying horticultural and building trades.

"I love planting flowers, working in the greenhouse and making arrangements," said Anthony Shane Jennings, a horticulture trainee who had created several fall floral centerpieces. "I want to own my own farm one day."

Herbert J. Hoelter, co-founder and chief executive at the school, worked closely with the area's Jiffy Lube franchise owners in designing the building and the automotive program. The project was completed with $325,000 in state funding and a $175,000 grant from the Castellani Family Foundation, a Florida-based organization that supports alternative education programs.

"This really is a working Jiffy Lube that is an automotive vocational training center," Hoelter said, adding the students will eventually handle routine maintenance of the school's fleet of 40 vehicles.

Andy Gibson, 16, a trainee, said he is learning to do everything a customer might need, from an oil change to tire rotation.

"I have attended a lot of schools in the past, but this one is my favorite," he said. "I know that I am different, but I am high functioning. This school is teaching me all the basics. I am not struggling here. I am thriving. One day, I plan to build my own car from the ground up."

His classmates praised the hands-on approach, the teachers and mentors, and the state-of-the-art equipment.

"This program is really keeping me on track," said Jamal Brownlee, 16. "It is giving me confidence. I will get a job."

Ivy Jones has approached a car center in her Catonsville neighborhood about employment.

"I have told them to get ready for me, because I am ready to work," she said.