Central Technical School is Toronto's "Winning Speed School"

By Mark Toljagic

Teacher Tony Rende is philosophical about the time his Grade 9 students' electric drag bike lifted him off the floor and deposited him on his backside, prompting the class to weld wheelie bars onto what resembles the devil's own exercise bicycle.

"There's no better way to get kids interested in learning than by having something they've built stand up on its rear wheel," he shrugs. "They're addicted to speed."

Tony Rende, far left, poses with some of his
students and their solar car project, Sunburn
capable of more than 47 km h.

This is Speed School , otherwise known as Central Technical School.

Located at Bathurst and Harbord Sts. in downtown Toronto , this near-century-old bastion of applied learning is home to 2,000 youths studying everything from electrical wiring to visual arts.

Central Tech is probably best known for training thousands of future auto technicians, a tradition stemming back to 1912 in the pre-dawn hours of the automobile era.

Today, the school features five automotive workshops - almost 20,000 square feet - filled with hoists, drill presses and engine analyzers.

"It's Canada 's biggest high school teaching automotive courses, as far as we know," boasts Rende. The courses are so popular, the school converted its former aircraft hangar into more drive-in repair bays.

An influx of younger automotive teachers in the early 1990s brought about a sea change in the curriculum by adopting more real- world practices.

Rather than teach students on static cars that never left the hoist, they opened the shop to real customers, introducing students to an almost daily rotation of different vehicles and repair challenges.

"Working on real cars provides students with a sense of pride in seeing the job completed and out the door - like a real shop," says Rende.

"We just had some students change the intake manifold on a 3.4- litre Pontiac Montana ," says teacher Sil Giacomazzo, a 12-year Central Tech veteran. "I don't envy them that task. There's a lot of technicians out there who wouldn't touch it."

It's a repair worth $1,500 at the dealership. Giacomazzo estimates it cost $200 in parts at the school, charged back to the van's owner. "I've lost track of the number of Ford Windstar cylinder heads we've done."

Don't get too excited. There's no accommodation for the general public; only staff and students' vehicles are eligible for repair.

"We won't take business away from the local community," says Giacomazzo, motioning to the garages up the street.

Rende and Giacomazzo defend the decision to work on road-going vehicles. They say making students accountable for their repairs is what makes Central Tech the leader in the field.

"We ask a lot of them. You could say it resembles a child-labour camp here at times," Rende jokes. "The English teachers call to complain that we're keeping them in class too long. But they won't leave; we have to force them out sometimes."

Training starts in Grade 9 with an introduction to the automotive trade, along with theory and workplace safety. By Grade 11, students are diagnosing and repairing vehicles. Grade 12 provides more complex problems, along with reinforcement of the lessons learned.

"It's a different generation today; the motivation is not there in the young ones," says Rende. "But by the time they reach Grade 12, they understand what's expected of them."

"Our goal is to have our students jump right into the workplace. Not just with the technical skills, but with the right attitude and work ethic," adds Giacomazzo.

Janos Mann inspects an electric drag bike
that he built at the Central Technical School.

Students can pursue a 16-week co-op placement with employers. There's no paycheque, but they gain additional practical skills, such as dealing with customers.

"We've had every major manufacturer - Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, BMW - line up to take our students on placement," says Rende. "We don't send our kids to backyard butcher shops."

Central Tech's boot-camp curriculum works. The school dominates the skills competition sponsored by the Toronto Automobile Dealers Association (TADA), winning every contest at the Canadian International AutoShow since the competition began in 2000.

Automotive students from across the city compete by repairing specially prepared vehicles that have been rigged with a no-start condition. They have 80 minutes to find the problem and fix it, using identical sets of tools and spare parts provided by the manufacturer. (Volkswagen Canada has been the sponsor to date.)

This year, Central Tech students Nelson Carvalho and Thomas Miliauskas cleaned up at the show, earning the opportunity to fly to New York City and compete with some well-funded American schools.

"Down there, you have kids from schools where all they do is eat, sleep and work on cars for four years," says Carvalho, 19. "In the States, they recognize the younger techs. They know the kids are the future."

In preparation, the Central Tech team borrowed a new Mazda3 (the manufacturer assigned it to the Canadian team) and a $15,000 scan tool. They studied the car's 2,000-page technical manual, noting details like Mazda's labeling system.

The pair even went to Centennial College to get training on air bags and emission controls from the professors, who volunteered their time.

The practice paid off the pair finished second, scant fractions of a point away from the winning team, the best showing ever by a Canadian school. They had found the problem - a faulty main relay - in short order.

Nelson Carvalho works on a Jeep engine.

"For a three-hour test, we were done in an hour and 20 minutes. If it had been a timed event, we would have won hands down," says Carvalho. Points were also given for methodology, workflow and teamwork.

"We had a lot of people looking at us," Carvalho says. He came home with multiple job offers from every manufacturer on the U.S. eastern seaboard. Curiously, Canadian employers have been indifferent.

Carvalho got an introduction to the trade at the tender age of 11, after his family sent him to their native Portugal for the summer. He started working in his brother-in-law's garage, helping with repairs. He returns every year.

"Now I have my own bay there," he smiles.

In Portugal , Carvalho works on recalcitrant Fiats and Renaults, to Smart cars and turbodiesel Mercedes-Benzes, complementing his Canadian experience.

He's aware of how the trade is perceived in Canada . "They used to send you downstairs to the automotive shops here if you couldn't read or write. But that doesn't work anymore; if you can't read, you can't work a scan tool."

Carvalho knows the value of working with his hands. His father became a successful electrician after graduating from Central Tech. While he has the grades to enrol at any university, Carvalho is intent on becoming an automotive technician.

"Some people ask me 'Is that really what you want to do'?" Carvalho recounts. "You make the money you want to make in this trade. I have a friend who works for Volkswagen. He made $128,000 last year."

Giacomazzo says the Canadian industry still has a way to go to recognize the talents of youth like Carvalho and Miliauskas.

"BMW in Europe offers cash signing bonuses to high school apprentices. If we were in America , we'd get all kinds of corporate support," he says, shaking his head.

While the school board funds Central Tech's auto shops to the best of its ability, the equipment pales in comparison to that of training schools elsewhere.

"I question the mentality of corporate Canada ," says Giacomazzo of their apparent apathy. "Could you imagine what we could accomplish with a little help?"

In the past, companies like Canadian Tire and Bear have donated equipment, but corporate support has been waning - while the need for updated equipment has grown exponentially.

"We spend $2,000 a year updating Mitchell On Demand, our vehicle- repair database," says Giacomazzo. He has a wish list that includes an alignment machine, OBD-II scan tools and other equipment.

What Central Tech doesn't need are donated vehicles, gifts Giacomazzo says have more to do with public relations than practicality.

He wants more high-tech tools to "demystify the black box for the student."

Outside, a small clutch of students fusses with "Sunburn," Central Tech's entry in this month's solar car race in Edmonton .

Teacher Walter Santagati dons a helmet and squeezes into the low- slung contraption. The bicycle-wheeled vehicle accelerates around the track in eerie silence while the school's rugby team practises on the field.

Santagati is jubilant when he pulls in "47 km/h and I didn't even have it in top gear," he says excitedly, noting that the straight- aways are too short to test the car's top speed.

Rende points to the group. "Where else can students pull an engine, work on a solar racer and go to plumbing class? They're not all going to be auto technicians, but what they'll all learn is teamwork and perseverance."

Next year, Central Tech will launch its motorsports technology program, aimed at university-bound students contemplating an engineering career.

With a combination of machine shop and auto tech, students will build a racecar - perhaps a Formula Ford, Rende says - by fabricating the parts they need in-house.

Speed School? You bet.

The teachers are going to need fire-retardant racing suits to go along with their helmets.

Reproduced with permission:
Michael Stuparyk Toronto Star
Mark Toljagic