WALKER -- Imagine teaching band without any instruments.
Or a carpentry class without any wood.
Those are the analogies Chris Ledoux presented on Monday, when Walker High School officially unveiled its new Gerry Lane Paint and Body Shop, the latest in a long list of innovations made on campus.
The new facility will allow students to learn all about collision repair, beginning with how to prepare the surface all the way to putting on the last coat of paint. Through the course, they’ll also be able to earn the I-Car certification.
The 1,200-square-foot building, located on the east side of campus facing North Palmetto Street, houses two bays, one for holding the painting booth and the other for body work lessons. Gerry Lane Enterprises donated the paint booth, and PPG Paints is providing other materials for use.
For Ledoux, who transitioned to the Auto Paint and Body class when it was implemented last school year, the opportunities the new building will present his 22 students in grades 10-12 are endless.
“I can’t tell y’all how exciting this is for me,” Ledoux said during the ceremony. “And I know how exciting this is for my kids. They haven’t stopped asking me about when they’ll be able to use it.”
On a hot, sunny morning, WHS Principal Jason St. Pierre welcomed school board members, central office staff, and local business leaders to tour the new building, which Career & Technical Education Coordinator Staci Polozola said cost about $150,000 to get up and running.
During the ceremony, St. Pierre said the new facility furthers the school’s long-term goal of offering career-based classes that will help students “earn certifications and be job ready” after high school.
“It was a collaborative effort getting this done, but in the end, it’s for our kids to have opportunities,” St. Pierre said. “We’re changing education with what we’re offering students. We’re meeting the needs of those who are going to college and those who want to go into a trade.
“We’re servicing all students here at Walker High School.”
Along with St. Pierre, Gerry Lane Enterprises President Eric Lane spoke during the ceremony, describing the finished product as “a dream come true.” Lane said St. Pierre approached him with the idea of opening a collision repair center about two years ago and he immediately jumped on board, knowing the opportunities the trade can offer people looking for a well-paying career.
“Not everybody needs to go to a four-year school,” Lane said. “This can provide a great living for people and their families. You work hard, but you can make the money.”
Not only will students be able to learn the trade, Lane said his company will also be able to hire them right out of high school, first as part-time apprentices before “hopefully transitioning them to full-time.”
This is the first project of its kind for Gerry Lane Enterprises, but Lane said he hopes to do more in the future — especially considering the benefits its provides students looking for a trade “they can take anywhere they go.”
“The great thing about this is it’s a portable trade,” Lane said. “If you move [out of state], you can get a job in a day if you have all your certifications. You can walk into any body shop and they’ll hire you on the spot. This is a trade these kids can learn to take care of themselves for the rest of their life.”
During the ceremony, Lane noted that body shop workers can make as much as “$1,100 to $1,500 a week.” To prove his point, he said he even sent St. Pierre an email of two weeks’ worth of payroll “just to show him what my people are making.”
Lane also said body and paint work has become more important than service department work in recent years. As cars become more advanced, they require less service work, “but you can’t fix cities getting more and more crowded, and accidents are going to happen.”
“Body and paint shops are expanding in cities across the country,” Lane said. “To have the ability to paint and fix cars will provide you a steady income.”
That was part of what drew the attention of Polozola, who also discussed her plans for an upcoming all-girls automotive conference at the Literacy and Technology Center in Walker on Oct. 17.
“This is what career and tech education in 2019 looks like — finding opportunities to give students a very relevant skill set where they can enter the workforce directly after high school or work while they’re continuing with their post-secondary education,” she said. “This is worth every penny.”
The Gerry Lane Paint and Body Shop joins a long list of other business-related sites and classes for Walker High students to get practical experience while learning about various career options, all part of the school’s $25 million capital improvement plan.
Other on-campus businesses include the Green and White Cookie Site, a Nike apparel store, Neighbors Federal Credit Union, Papa John’s, and the Walk-On’s Conference Center. There are also classes in welding, carpentry, electricity and drones.
Ledoux said the auto shop’s opening will be a welcomed sight for his students, who since last year have had to refurbish old lockers, filing cabinets, book carts, fenders, and mailboxes instead of the cars they signed up to work on.
“We had to get creative and do what we could before,” he said, “but now, we finally have a facility where we can get our hands on an actual car.”
Like his students, Ledoux was also learning something new in the beginning.
Ledoux, a former special education teacher, said St. Pierre asked him two summers ago if he’d be interested in teaching the Auto Paint and Body class. Though he refurbished multiple cars with his father when he was a teenager, it was still an “entirely new” area for Ledoux as a teacher, but he said he learned much through a program sponsored by Gerry Lane and other professional development courses.
“I’m excited about this because I love cars… and fixing things, too,” he said. “My kids are looking forward to this. Some of my former students are jealous that they won’t be able to work in the shop.”
On Monday, Ledoux joked that he has “no clue” what the first project inside the new facility will be, but it will be “something that’s very forgiving, I can tell you that.”
“It won’t be a 2019 model,” he said with a laugh.