High-schooler ‘fits right in’

Andrew Geer is in Mechanic A School.
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© Andrea Howry/Lighthouse
Andrew Geer, left, a 17-year-old high school junior, joins Air Force and Navy students in the Construction Mechanic A School. "He fits right in," one instructor said. © Andrea Howry/Lighthouse
Imagine for a moment that you’ve spent the last several years teaching young adults the ins and outs of vehicles diesel engines, steering mechanisms, suspension systems.

Then one day, a 17-year-old walks into your classroom, eager to learn.

Do you do anything differently?

“Nothing at all,” said Tech Sgt. Gonzalo Amezcua, who teaches the chassis phase in Construction Mechanic A School at the Naval Construction Training Center, Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme. “We treat everybody the same, civilian or military. To teach them differently would be hurting them.”

And so Andrew Geer, a junior at Channel Islands High School, finds himself going through the same ups and downs of classroom life as the 24 Navy and Air Force students fresh out of boot camp.

For him, the ups are the days of hands-on work with vehicle parts.

“Usually, I can just look at it and figure out how it works,” he said.

The downs are the tests.

“I’m getting better,” he said. “But they’re tough.”

Andrew is one of several teenagers who have gone through this latest version of a program that allows standout automotive students in the Oxnard Union High School District to enroll in the 11-week A school. The students are on base from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day and earn high school credits while working with equipment that far exceeds what’s available in the local high school auto shop classes. They’re also expected to complete English, math, physical education and other requirements at home through independent study.

The program had been tried several years before and was revived just last year.

With only three weeks of the 11-week curriculum left, Andrew has learned about the various parts of vehicles used in construction. He’s learned about gas engines, diesel engines, ignition systems, fuel systems, wheels and tires and hydraulics.

He’ll end the series with transmissions and brakes.

But along with all the automotive studies, he’s learned about the differences between what’s expected in the military and real life and what’s expected in high school.

“You don’t show up here in baggy pants with a bad attitude,” Amezcua said. “That won’t fly. You have to have discipline, and that’s a lesson people have to learn whether they’re going into the military or into the civilian workforce.”

As a chassis instructor, Amezcua meets the students about halfway through the curriculum. Six weeks into the program, Andrew had grown quiet.

“I had to break him out of his shell,” Amezcua said. “I think being surrounded by military members all day had clammed him up. He’s only in high school. He’s shy.”

This particular class also has 24 other students.

“That’s way too big,” said Amezcua. “I like 15 or even 10 a lot better. It’s easier to see a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and it’s easier to get to know them.”

Amezcua started conversations with Andrew, finding out more about him and what he hoped to gain from the class.

By the time Tech Sgt. Marquia Cantu got him the following week, things were different.

“He gets involved,” Cantu said of Andrew. “He’s just like every other student. Only the clothing sets him apart.”

Cantu said that while she hasn’t changed her teaching style or the subject matter, she has changed the examples she gives in class.

“I just can’t relate everything to boot camp,” she said.

Instructor Paul Ortegal, who teaches steering and suspension, agreed that Andrew had gained confidence midway through the program.

“He asks a lot of questions and is really receptive to learning,” he said. “He jumps in. He’s all about understanding what everything does.

“He fits right in.”

Chief Construction Mechanic Jerry Pearse, the chassis phase director of NCTC, sees advantages to both sides with this program.

“It keeps us in tune with the civilian population,” he said. “And they see a different side of the military they’d probably never see otherwise. What everyone sees is based on TV or movies — the yelling in your face. They don’t see the technical aspects these kids are learning.”

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