Union Democrat staff

How many times have you heard the refrain, "How can I find a good mechanic around here?"

Anyone who has lived in Tuolumne or Calaveas county for awhile knows that plenty of well-qualified mechanics are doing business in the Mother Lode, and are happy to tell anyone who asks about their favorite.

But here's great news: That list of excellent auto mechanics has just grown by at least a half-dozen.

Six of Calaveras High School auto shop teacher Chris Sedler's students just carried away top honors at a Laguna Seca Raceway competition sponsored by the Edelbrock carburetor company.

Valley Springs seniors Luke Dolin and Michael Beristianos teamed up to

win first place and a pair of $5,000 scholarships to Ohio Technical

College. Junior Justin Rapetti of San Andreas and Sedler's daughter,

Kaylee, took second place and two $4,000 scholarships. Finally, seniors

Bacle Taylor of Valley Springs and Brendan Raymundo took fifth and

$1,500 scholarships.

Would you trust these kids with your car? Heck, these student

attend what Hot Rod magazine calls "Horsepower High." Who wouldn't?

Want to coax a little more juice out of your Chevy or Ford? Let these star students under the hood.

So, will all six of these star Calaveras High students go to four-year colleges?

Well, they're certainly bright enough to get in. And, just as

certainly, they really don't need to. They could go on to a technical

school like Ohio Tech, or get jobs at existing garages and do just


Their success, and that of other vocational education students at

Bret Harte, Sonora, Cassina and Summerville high schools, and at

Columbia College, brings into question an assumption that dates back


That getting its graduates into four-year colleges is the yardstick by which high schools can be measured.

In this day (and in this troubled economic environment), a better

gauge may be how many graduates land jobs with a future and with wages

adequate to support themselves or, even better, a young family.

There is plenty of evidence that four-year schools aren't the answer for everyone.

• Many high school students who do get into college need remedial

English or math classes to get them up to starting level.

• About a third of college students never graduate.

• And for those who do earn a diploma, a well-paying job is hardly guaranteed.

While a focused student with specific goals and a structured

curriculum may find success, a generic liberal arts degree, at least

for awhile, may lead to moving furniture or flipping burgers. And

college may also cost the student - or more likely, his family - tens

of thousands of dollars.

Here in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, students have a wide range

of options and, judging from statistics, take advantage of them. All

four public high schools, as well as alternative ed programs associated

with them, offer an array of vocational classes.

Auto shop, welding, cosmetology, business, drafting, sports

medicine and computer science are among high school offerings. At

Columbia College, the curriculum broadens to include forestry, fire

science, auto collision repair, nursing, child care and education, EMS

training, hospitality management, medical transcription and much more.

At Sonora High, which could be representatiive of other schools in the area, students make a variety of choices:

Of 228 members of the 2009 graduating class surveyed, 49 are at

four-year schools, 133 are at community colleges, 14 are at technical

schools, five are in the military, 33 hold full-time jobs and the

remainder have part time jobs or are looking for work.

In today's economic and job market, vocational programs are

becoming an increasingly important part of the educational picture.

Like four-year colleges, they are not for everyone.

But for high school and community college students who know what

they want, voc-ed classes offer inexpensive, specific instruction aimed

directly at career paths. Successful students can often find jobs

immediately, quickly making a positive impact on the economy.

In this era of cuts to education, legislators and school trustees

should think long and hard before reducing funding for our proven

vocational education programs. They're a bargain we shouldn't give