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CALABASAS, Calif.—Five public high school automotive teachers—Ken Cox and Dennis Johnson of California, David Lilly of New Hampshire, Joel Massarello of Michigan and Baxter Weed of Vermont—are among the 18 winners of the 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, the highest number of automotive winners of the prize in its three-year history. The 18 winners will receive more than $1 million in prizes.
The winning automotive teachers, who are among 15 second-place winners, include: Ken Cox of Redwood High School in Visalia, California; Dennis Johnson of Fallbrook High School in Fallbrook, California; David Lilly of Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Joel Massarello of Oakland Science and Technical Campus Northwest in Clarkston, Michigan; and Baxter Weed of Cold Hollow Career Center in Enosburg Falls, Vermont. They, along with the 13 other winners who teach other skilled trades subjects, were each surprised in their classrooms today by representatives from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools with the news that they and their schools will receive cash awards.
First-place winners and their schools will receive $100,000—$70,000 for the high school skilled trades program and $30,000 for the teacher. Second-place winners, including the five automotive technology teachers, will each receive $50,000, with $35,000 going to their public high school skilled trades program and $15,000 to the individual teacher or team.
“Skilled trades educators are crucial to helping students stay engaged and motivated in high school,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “These amazing teachers connect students to promising careers, show them how to apply academics to the real world and help them feel pride and accomplishment—something they might not experience in all their classes. We make these awards because we believe in these teachers, we believe in these students, and we believe this vital sector deserves more support and investment.”
In addition to the more than $1 million in first- and second-place prizes awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, the company Harbor Freight Tools donated $32,000 to 32 semifinalists.
The Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Harbor Freight Tools Founder Eric Smidt to recognize extraordinary public high school skilled trades teachers and programs with a proven track record of dedication and performance. Prizes are awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, a program of The Smidt Foundation.
"All of our roads and bridges, our schools and homes, and our planes and automobiles are built and are maintained by tradespeople," Smidt said. "It is our dedicated skilled trades teachers, who inspire students to pursue these meaningful careers, that allow our economy to thrive and make so much of what we depend on possible. We are deeply honored to be able to shine a light on these extraordinary teachers today."
Recruited to take over the automotive program at Redwood High School, Ken Cox sold his auto repair business and jumped head-first into teaching. His students train in automotive technologies directly linked to local industry opportunities and can earn multiple industry-recognized certifications. They compete in SkillsUSA, car club and local community college events in automotive, electrical and leadership categories. In addition to traditional automotive principles, Cox’s students also learn electric and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. This year, his students converted a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle from gasoline power to full electric, fabricating many of the required parts in-house. His students learn professionalism and leadership, with designated “shop managers” charged with mentoring and team-building.
Dennis Johnson has been an automotive technology instructor since 2002 and currently teaches at Fallbrook High School. He also stays active in the automotive industry, where he has worked for 30 years, to keep his program up to date and to help him connect his students with industry networks. Johnson developed a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to provide real world experience for his students and has had live video conference sessions with aerospace engineers to make students aware of careers and opportunities at NASA. He has also developed agreements with automotive programs at local community colleges so his students can earn college credits, and his “Warriors Garage” curriculum recently received University of California A-G approval as college preparatory coursework.
David Lilly has rebuilt his school’s automotive technology program over the last eight years, transforming it into a program certified by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) that offers articulated credit at several local colleges. Students in Lilly’s class run a live shop, interacting with customers as they write repair orders, diagnose problems and select parts for repair. Lilly offers several of his students independent study placements at local dealerships. In 2019, Lilly’s students placed seventh at the National Automotive Technology Competition, bringing his program a boost in reputation and industry attention.
Joel Massarello became an automotive instructor at OSTC-NW in 2003, after several years as a master technician at a Caterpillar equipment dealer. In addition to earning articulated credit and certifications, Massarello’s students receive job interview training from a General Motors lead project engineer. Massarello’s shop, staffed by his students, provides free auto repair services for the community’s elderly and disabled residents, as well as for low-income families. Massarello prepares his students not only to fix cars for individuals without the resources to pay for repairs—he also encourages his students to show care and concern for their customers.
Baxter Weed never imagined he would be an automotive tech teacher in his hometown of Enosburg Falls. He was a computer engineering student in college and had job offers waiting for him before graduation. It was his passion for mechanical things and fixing cars that led him to work at a local independent shop. When he heard his hometown career technical center was starting an automotive program, he jumped at the opportunity to teach. Weed has built a program with national standards that dovetail with post-secondary institutions and a strong mentor program. He created an after-hours Automotive Club for interested students where they can work on fabrication, welding and performance skills. They have several long-term projects that range from building a custom motorcycle to building a lowered panel truck. Every fall Weed runs a “powersports” week, where his students work on snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and dirt bikes.
Photos and b-roll of the surprise announcements will be available upon request.
In addition to the five automotive teachers, the following skilled trades teachers were also named winners. Because of school, district or state policy regarding individual cash awards, the schools of three of the second-place winners will receive the entire prize winnings.
Michael Campanile and Michael Schweinsberg
The school’s prize winnings will support the skilled trades program being recognized, and the teacher’s or teacher team winnings can be used as they wish. The high schools of the remaining 32 semifinalists will each receive a $1,000 Harbor Freight Tools gift card to support their skilled trades programs.
The 2019 prize drew nearly 750 applications from 49 states and included three rounds of judging, each by a separate independent panel of experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership. The field was narrowed this summer to 50 semifinalists. The application process, which included responses to questions and a series of online video learning modules, was designed to solicit each teacher’s experience, insights and creative ideas about their approach to teaching and success in helping their students achieve excellence in the skilled trades. All learning modules are available here.
The list of semifinalist teachers is available here.
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