It's another Friday morning here at Robison Service. I walk into the lower shop, and spot an older Mercedes-Benz sedan with its hood open. In its shadow, three young men cluster around an older fellow as they point at the motor and engage in an intense discussion. It’s a scene that could be happening anywhere in the 32 bays of our automotive service complex, but this spot is unique.
This area is not a commercial garage. It’s a campus – a very special high school program for teens with behavioral issues, or challenges like ADHD, Asperger’s, PDD-NOS, or autism. The older fellow is Mark Girard, an experienced vocational instructor, and the young men are his students. Special Ed assistant Nestor Torres stands to the side, ready to lend a hand. Nine teens from districts all over Western Massachusetts have signed up for the first semester of our TCS Automotive Program. I'm really, really proud to host them here in our complex.
The program is the realization of a longstanding dream I’ve had, to help people like me grow up and make their way in the world. Ever since the release of Look Me in the Eye parents have found their way to my shop, families in tow. “Can you teach our child about cars,” they ask? Some offer to leave their kids without charge. Others wave cash. I’ve even had young adults come by, volunteering themselves. Who knew being autistic would make me so popular?
Still, I was never able to accept any of those offers, because I didn’t have anyone to supervise the volunteers, enthusiastic though they might have been. Yet we need new workers; talented young people who want to enter the auto trade are a rare commodity. Last year I decided to do something about it.
“Would you like to help teach the automotive trade to special ed students?” That was my question to the folks at Northeast Center for Youth and Families. They operate Tri County School – a large special needs school with culinary and other programs in nearby Easthampton. I knew their culinary program for high school students was a hit. Why not cars?
To my surprise and pleasure they were very quick to embrace the idea. “We need to give our kids real skills they can use to get jobs. All too often, they leave here with a high school diploma and then fall flat because they can’t find work.” Those were the words of Paul Rilla, head of NCYF’s program. He saw the program’s potential right away.
Even with that endorsement, it took quite a bit of discussion and planning to build what you see today. The vision was simple but challenging: Teach high school students a combination of academics (most graduate with regular diplomas from the referring districts), social skills, and automotive inspection and repair skills. We proposed to do that teaching in the midst of an environment where cars are fixed for real, by working professional mechanics.
The NCYF board gave the go-ahead for the project in the winter of 2012-13. We began preparation of the area that spring. One of the first tasks was finding a vocational instructor who shared our ideals. We found that in Mark Girard, who was teaching at a vocational program in Holyoke. He agreed to join us at the end of his school year. Tri County received its state license to operate the program in our complex in late July, just in time for the first day of school at the beginning of September.
We’re licensed as a satellite campus of Tri County Schools, which is part of Northeast Center for Youth and Families, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit MA Chapter 766 special needs school operator. Students spend a week in automotive shop then a week in academic classes at the main Tri County School. They are divided into two groups that alternate places weekly.
It’s been quite a journey for me, serving as an advisor to a high school shop program. The school is run by licensed professionals, of course, but I advise from my perspective an autistic adult, a former special needs student, and an owner of automotive service businesses. I’ve been speaking at schools for years, and meeting with students even longer, but being part of this on a daily basis was new. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s really complicated, making and running a successful school. But it’s a lot of fun, and I’m very proud of what our students and staff have done in the short time we’ve been open.
Our students are doing really well – much better than any of us expected. I had thought we might have to go slower and perhaps limit our curriculum, when compared to regular vocational high school. Yet the opposite has proven true. We’re going faster, and digging deeper into theory and practice.
Our students show their special skills at the most unexpected times – like when you open a drawer to find every tool laid out as if we were in a surgical suite. Or when we bring a vintage car into the shop and another student already knows a thousand little things about it.
There are other times when we see our challenges, and I’m glad we are able to have a 2:1 student-staff ratio in the shop. Several students have told me this is the “real thing,” as opposed to high school, which has a different meaning to some.
I’ve told the students that I am committed to helping them with apprenticeships in our commercial complex, so they can leave us with actual job references. Another of our goals is to help students gain specific credentials every year they are with us. For example, we are beginning to work on driver’s licenses for some students – because you can’t get a job fixing cars if you can’t drive them legally! We’re looking at helping our students get licenses to do state safety inspections, which qualify them for jobs all over the state. Later on, we’ll work toward ASE certificates though those also require a period of work in the industry.
Several of our students went on TV to talk about their experience here. A reporter also visited us from New England Public radio. This is her account of the school.
We expect most students to spend two years in our program though some may benefit from all or part of a third year, subject to home district funding and approval. At this time, our student population is all supported through the public school and MA DESE funding systems. We provide transportation and our parent nonprofit (NCYF) has residential options as well.
We will prepare students for jobs in the trade, if they want to go right to work. We also encourage students to continue on to college programs through our community college network, and other collaborating colleges in and around Springfield. We’re building those networks now and hope to be announcing some exciting collaborations very soon.
We’re almost halfway through our first school year, and we’re ready to talk about enrollment for fall 2013. If you know someone who’s approaching 16, has a special needs diagnosis and an IEP, is interested in cars, and looking toward a bright future beyond high school - - - I encourage you to talk to them, and give our admission folks a call at 413-529-7777.
If you want to pay us a visit the automotive campus is at 347 Page Boulevard in Springfield, MA. Tri County’s main campus is at 203 East Street in Easthampton.
John Elder Robison is an autistic adult who is known as a writer and advocate for people with autism and neurological differences. He is currently Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary, and he serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept. of Health and Human Services. He is also the founder of J E Robison Service - a specialty business that repairs and restores high end automobiles in Springfield, Massachusetts