New club brings auto repair back to Stevenson High

The newest club at Lincolnshire's Stevenson High School doesn't have anything to do with academics or athletics.

It's all about cars - dismantling them, rebuilding them, getting them to run.

And the teens who trade textbooks for socket wrenches twice a week as part of the aptly named Auto Club, getting their fingers black with grease and grime in the process, are digging it.

"It's pretty useful," junior Eric Fleishman said. "And (we) have some fun while we're at it."

No more auto shop

Stevenson - a school at which 98 percent of students attend college after graduation - hasn't offered a class involving auto maintenance since the 1988-89 school year.

"It was called Power Mechanics, and it dealt with small engine repair all the way up to car engines," school spokesman Jim Conrey said.

Auto shop courses once were standard offerings at American high schools, but interest at Stevenson and elsewhere waned as students became more focused on college preparation.

The emergence of an auto program at the Lake County High Schools Technology Campus, a career training center in Grayslake that draws students from across the region, likely contributed to the course's decline at Stevenson, too, Conrey said.

But thanks to the new club, auto repair training is back at Stevenson.

The group was the brainchild of Rodney Phelps, campus general manager for Sodexo, the company providing food service and maintenance at Stevenson.

Phelps wants to teach students how to change tires, replace dirty engine oil and troubleshoot basic problems, among other automotive skills.

"Most (students) don't know what to do if their car breaks down on the road or at home," he said. "The goal is to show them minor things they can do, and (how to) save money during college by doing it themselves."

Already popular

The group meets Mondays and Thursdays after school in the building and grounds garage. After just two meetings, the club already has about 30 members.

Conrey isn't surprised the club attracted so many students so quickly.

"This generation of students is very much a do-it-yourself crowd," he said. "They like to watch something online and then dive in and figure things out for themselves."

Phelps divides students into two groups: those with basic automotive knowledge and those with no skills at all. They're pretty evenly split.

During a session last week, the beginners watched Sodexo mechanic Tom Prochow replace tires and wheels on a pickup truck used for campus security. Then they practiced it themselves.

Junior Brandon Conner was among them.

"I'm looking at buying a new car, so I wanted to see how to work on cars," Conner explained.

The students with basic automotive skills have a more difficult project: They're taking apart a 1947 Jeep that Phelps found online and bought for the club.

Once it's in pieces, the students will paint and reassemble the vehicle.

Phelps said he picked the old Jeep because it's a relatively simple machine compared to the complex autos being manufactured today.

"You have to start with something easy for the kids, so I can see the knowledge base," Phelps said.

The teens assigned to the Jeep don't have the speed or synchronization of a NASCAR pit crew, but they work well together. They wordlessly team up to safely remove 70-year-old bolts, nuts, bumpers, seats and other parts, setting them aside for the eventual reassembly.

Fleishman is in the group working on the Jeep.

"I want to learn something new as well as practice what I already know," he said.

On the other end of the spectrum is sophomore Stanislaw Nowicki, who said he's always loved cars but has never repaired one before.

At a club gathering last week, Nowicki changed a tire for the first time with gusto.

"It's really fun to work on the real thing," he said.

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  Sodexo technician Tom Prochnow talks to students about engine maintenance during a meeting of Stevenson High School's new Auto Club. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Stevenson High School juniors Aniket Kulkarni, top, and Eugene Gurevich work on the back of a 1947 Jeep during a meeting of the Auto Club. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Stevenson High School sophomore Leon Kosciak changes a tire during a meeting of the newly formed Auto Club. The group's sponsor hopes to teach the teens repair and maintenance skills. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
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