At Northeast High, a record number of girls joined the automotive program

ST. PETERSBURG — Makayla Jewett has loved cars — their speed, their power, their beauty — ever since she can remember.

“I do want to get into drifting and drag racing,” the 15-year-old Northeast High freshman said. “I want to be able to build race engines for special cars.”

The decision to enroll in Northeast’s four-year Automotive Academy, instead of attending her zoned school in Tarpon Springs, was a no-brainer for Jewett. Still, one thing nagged at her when the time came.

“Whenever my mom signed me up, I told her, ‘I’m scared there’s not going to be any other girls in the program with me,’” she said, standing in the shop in her steel-toed shoes and gray work uniform.

Boy, was she wrong.

This year, the traditionally male-dominated career academy has more female students than ever, making up about 10% of its enrollment. And as it pushes to grow even larger, teacher James Kavanagh said he hopes to see more apply during the Jan. 9-19 enrollment period for Pinellas County’s 80-plus choice programs.

As they should, said sophomore Dalianis Franqui, another car aficionado who moved from Boca Ciega High to Northeast to take advantage of the academy.

“Girls should get more into the industry,” said Franqui, 15, as she prepared to help break down an engine, unconcerned about what the wrenching and grease might do to her well-manicured nails. “Girls can do boy things, too. ... It’s really fun to make new friends with other females who have the same passion I do.”

To her, the four-year program, which is connected to Pinellas Technical College, offers a pathway to a career as a mechanic with her own shop.

That’s not the plan for everyone in the program.

Ra’Mya Green, 16, said her decision to join the academy shocked her family. They’re not into cars much, the sophomore said, and they know she hates to get her hands dirty.

“It just caught my attention,” said Green, who would otherwise have attended Hollins High. “I thought it would be interesting to get my hands dirty and try something new. ... It really gets me out of my shell.”

She doesn’t intend to work as a professional mechanic, with her interest tending toward becoming a surgeon. But she finds the hands-on work invigorating, saying, “You really can be fast and furious with this.”

Freshman Violet Grebe, 14, agreed that the classes, which take up two periods each day, energize what could be a boring school experience.

“I love the hands-on everything,” she said, seeking the socket needed to loosen the engine rocker arm for access to the valve springs — things she never heard of before this semester. “I knew this would make me want to go to school more than just sitting and listening to teachers talk all day.”

Grebe, whose interest is in engineering, said she especially looks forward to the lessons on electrical circuits that come in the program’s third year.

The first year is spent on foundations such as safety and maintenance, with the second year focused on brakes, steering and suspension. In their senior year, the students concentrate on engine repair, heating and air conditioning. They earn credits from Pinellas Technical College, completing several industry certifications along the way.

“I like to say I am the practical application of their science classes,” Kavanagh said, adding that he teaches soft skills, too — most importantly, clear communication and cooperation.

The program leads to job opportunities, he said, mentioning that some students already have part-time work at local dealerships, while graduates have landed positions with race teams, dealerships and other automotive groups.

Junior Nigella Gerena, 16, said she aims to become an architect. But as a longtime car lover — she’s done plenty of car and motorcycle shows with her dad — she said she found the academy fun and practical.

“The only stuff my dad taught me was taking off a tire, changing the oil,” Gerena said. “Here you learn much more. ... It’s a good program. Learning about all this stuff is good for when you leave and get out in the real world.”

Even if they don’t become professionals in the field. As Grebe, the freshman, noted: “Something is going to happen to someone’s car sometime. It’s a good thing to know.”

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