TOLEDO, OHIO — Bill Hesser, who graduated from high school this month, bypassed a summer job flipping burgers. He went straight to a high-skilled position at Owens-Brockway Plastics & Closures.
Hesser, not your typical teenager, credits his education at Toledo Technology Academy — an innovative school that connects vocational and academic instruction with student teamwork and strong industry support. The academy opened its doors in 1997, housed in the old DeVilbiss High School, which had closed in 1991 because of declining enrollment.
Toledo Technology Academy was renovated, equipped and staffed with a $6.6 million budget over 1997-99. About $1 million of that came from industry, which donated all the machinery and bought computers, desks and chairs. Each classroom has 10 computers, linked to the Internet.
Students do electrical work, machining, welding and assembly. They install controllers and tinker with robots.
These students build machines.
On the last day of school, June 4, the school held an Automation Celebration for parents and industrial mentors. Remember science fair and the erupting volcano? At TTA's open house, the kids showed off some killer projects: a solar-powered bicycle from the freshmen, the sophomores' remote-controlled robot that finished 13th out of 200 in a national contest at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, a gasoline-powered miniature car by the seniors. The budding engineers also have designed a complete line to produce Duncan yo-yos, building the injection molds, molding parts and creating equipment to insert an axle between the two sides of the yo-yo, wind the string and package the toy.
Hesser and two other seniors built an automated pencil sharpener. As his parents looked on, Hesser described how robots convey the pencils to a belt-driven sharpener. The team machined every part on the pneumatic motor. They wired in an Allen-Bradley controller.
Hesser, of nearby Sylvania, Ohio, entered Toledo Technology Academy as a junior. A few days before graduation, Brent Martin hired him as a machine technician at Owens-Brockway's Blow Molding Engineering Center in Perrsyburg, Ohio. He plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Toledo.
In the past, the teenager said, school didn't turn him on. ``I didn't care for academics, really. Before, at Sylvania, I had a pretty low GPA. When I got here my grades went up,'' he said.
Hesser is the third TTA graduate hired by Owens-Brockway, said Martin, technical manager of the blow molding center. The first two were productive workers from day one. ``They all were very well-prepared,'' he said.
The program was founded in 1983 by Jerry Ewig, who left Anchor Coupling Corp. in Toledo to become a teacher. The small program slowly gained attention as students turned out impressive, complex machines. They won some national awards.
Ewig now leads a staff of eight teachers. The school's laboratories boast first-class technology — computer-aided design and manufacturing software, computer numerically controlled machining centers and welders. Donated plastics equipment includes a 25-ton Van Dorn Demag injection press, an Impco blow molding machine, a Budzar chiller, Conair auxiliary equipment and a Wittmann robot.
Students spend their entire day at the school. Academic courses — English, science, math, history, social studies — all are linked to what students are doing in the industrial laboratories. In math, students learn how to produce cost analyses and establish and maintain budgets. Social studies teaches lessons in teamwork and the history of the labor movement. Chemistry labs examine polymers.
The school's goal is to graduate 25 to 30 seniors a year, said Maxine Ewig, project manager at TTA.
Typically, vocational students take academic courses at their home schools, then stick to one area, like welding.
``In many high schools, you find that too many students lack direction,'' Ewig said. ``They're not focused on the reason for learning, their reason for coming to school.''
Mel Harbaugh, executive vice president of Toledo Molding & Die Inc., a local injection and blow molder, has gotten so involved that he spent Memorial Day weekend hauling solar bikes to Topeka, Kan., for a race.
His company also donated the mold for the seniors' car project, and cast metal parts for the engine.
Toledo Molding & Die hired a junior intern this summer for its CAD department — and Harbaugh said she's faster than he is on the computer.
Harbaugh said Toledo Technology Academy is far superior to other schools. ``What we're getting out of the other shop-class schools is, it's a baby-sitting class,'' he said.
Tom Lewis, president of TL Design Service Inc., likes the school's well-rounded approach to metalworking, plastics and electronics. ``This allows the student to look at the total picture,'' he said.
Support from local industry helps set TTA apart, according to Joanna Kister, director of career/technical and adult education at the Ohio Department of Education. ``They've been extremely effective in engaging business partners in meaningful ways with their program,'' she said.
Representatives from 25 local companies serve on the school's advisory committee. Each area of technology also has its own industry group.
Kister said Ohio is trying to change vocational education statewide. ``We're focusing on high-tech, high-skill, high-wage careers,'' she said.
Gov. Robert Taft wants to quadruple the number of students in technical career programs.
Cities like Toledo need young people to fill positions vacated as skilled workers retire.
New magnet schools geared toward industrial jobs also help lure students back to troubled urban districts. In recent years, Ohio's public schools have faced unprecedented competition from private schools, through experimental vouchers in Cleveland and a statewide charter-schools program.
At Toledo Technology Academy, a crowd of parents watched sophomores Christine Bilby and Cebrina Rayford direct a wheeled robot cart down the hall, picking up cushions. Toledo's Dana Corp. was the industrial partner.
Bilby, 15, is a newcomer to public schools. ``I'd always gone to a parochial school, and last year I was home-schooled,'' she said.
The school is ``really great'' Bilby said. ``I really liked working with this robot.''
Fourteen-year-old Chris Proctor came from Toledo's Central Catholic.
``I like to mess with things and build things,'' said Proctor, who worked on the solar bike.
At TTA, interest is heating up. This past year, 125 freshmen took the five-page placement test, trying to win one of just 40 openings.
One family even moved to Toledo from Michigan so their son could attend TTA.
The new competition will force public schools to improve, said English teacher Sharon Czyzew-ski. ``That only makes the public schools take a look at what we're doing, so see how we can make our schools more valuable to students. If we don't change, they will leave us,'' she said.
One major change at Toledo Technology Academy was how it selected its faculty. Instead of using seniority spelled out in the union contract, a committee of union, industry and administration officials picked teachers.
Changes in the classroom were equally dramatic. English students still study the traditional Shakespeare and Robert Frost. But Czyzewski also has them take a work of literature and rewrite it into a technical report.
``The reason kids like technical writing as opposed to traditional writing is because it's so exact. It's precise,'' she said. ``They don't need to be wildly creative. They just need to be correct in their choice of words.''
Students also write memos, proposals — and their resumes.