This week, Secretary Arne Duncan and a team of ED officials are embarking upon the Department’s 2011 back-to-school tour—this year under the theme of “Education and the Economy: Investing in our Future.” The tour will take Arne and a big blue bus throughout the Great Lakes region, with stops at a number of outstanding schools and communities. The bus’s final stop will be in the city where Arne served as CEO of the public schools, Chicago, before coming to Washington. At Carl Schurz High School, he’ll visit the classroom of Clairene Terry, an automotive class teacher who has restored automotive mechanics’ stature as an exciting and promising career path for Carl Schurz students.
Terry, a product of Chicago Public Schools herself, restored the automotive mechanics program at Schurz, and grew it into one of the most sought-after classes at the school. “There were always at least 120 students signing up for the [35-student] program. The numbers never dropped off,” she recalls.
Terry enthusiastically transfers her passion for diagnosing and fixing problems in cars, along with thinking skills, to her students. After she began teaching at Schurz in 2000, she led a team of students to a national automotive mechanics competition, where the team earned 5th place nationally and 1st place among Chicago high schools. “I love being competitive, that’s what drives me,” she says.
Working in auto mechanics today isn’t the same as it was 20 year ago. With advanced computer technology integrated into new vehicles, maintaining and repairing autos requires higher-order computer and math skills. Terry acknowledges how quickly technology in the field evolves, but she ensures that her students still have a solid understanding of the basics. “If you understand the basics, nothing changes; the concepts remain the same,” she explains. Despite increasing automation, core mechanic competency areas such as brakes, steering and engine performance have remained largely unchanged over the years, she says.
As an African-American woman at the forefront of high school automotive mechanics teaching, Clairene Terry is rare, if not unique, among educators in her field. She is currently the president of the Illinois College Automotive Instructors Association, an organization with more than 200 members. Before becoming an educator, Terry considered a variety of careers; she worked in insurance, as a security guard and served in the military. Automotive mechanics was the only one she found where she didn’t “hit a ceiling,” she recalls.
Just as Terry broke into a male-dominated field, as a teacher, she wants her students to understand that, despite what people may tell them, “no door is closed.” She prods them on to bigger and better things, asking them often, “Who can tell you what you can do?”
Secretary Duncan will visit Terry and her successful program during the bus tour’s final stop on Friday, before a forum highlighting a landmark education reform package that recently became law in Illinois. Arne recently acknowledged that career and technical education—and programs like Terry’s—is not receiving the attention it deserves during education reform discussions.
“The need to re-imagine and remake career and technical education is urgent,” Duncan said. “CTE has an enormous, if often overlooked, impact on students, school systems, and our ability to prosper as a nation.”
Luke Ferguson, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, was an intern over the summer in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.