A recognition ceremony for students at the W.D. and Mary Baker Smith Career Center on Wednesday is part of a bigger mission to inject local technical and career education with pride and prestige.

Over a dozen students in the school’s automotive, welding and culinary tracks were honored for earning certifications or collegiate technical diplomas through South Louisiana Community College, Principal Holly Boffy said.

Southside High senior Tanner Lemaire, 18, was also cheered for signing onto a job with Service Auto Air in Scott. He joined the career center’s automotive technician program as a junior and said the physical activity and hands-on problem solving nature of the work quickly clicked for him.

“It was just easier to learn by seeing it and doing it than looking at a computer screen,” he said.

Lemaire said he plans to attend classes at Baton Rouge Community College to learn about servicing diesel vehicles and grow his career options. The graduating senior said he believes his career center experience has set him on a more stable career path with strong earning potential — a relief after seeing his parents struggle financially.

“Instead of having to struggle as my parents did, I have a way easier career setup. Here you learn and you get to know people who know people,” the 18-year-old said.

This year, roughly 400 students traveled to the career center from their base schools for a portion of their school day to participate in one of the center’s 11 career and technical programs.

Boffy said celebrations like Wednesday’s let students know their technical and career education is just as worthy of praise as their traditional classes.

The principal, who serves on the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she believes society’s emphasis on attending college has been to the detriment of both students and the broader community because it’s created the false idea that skills and trade-based jobs are less than.

“It doesn’t feel less when I’m in Louisiana in the middle of the summer and my A/C is not working. All of a sudden HVAC is the most important industry on the planet,” Boffy said.

“I think where we’ve failed as a society is to recognize that all people have gifts, and we fail to give people pathways to use their gifts. That’s what we’re doing here — we’re giving people pathways to careers that are going to help run our community,” she said.

In addition to looking toward the future, the classes can also help students who’ve struggled in traditional education settings in the present, Boffy said.

It’s not that these students aren’t intelligent or capable, but a traditional setting may not be meeting their needs, she said. Continuously struggling in school can be discouraging; having success in a new environment, like the career center, is the leg up many students need to see their education through to graduation, the principal said.

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“Everyone needs to feel a certain amount of success to continue. You have to be bought into the mission. You have to feel like you can accomplish the mission. For a child who has struggled with reading their entire life, giving them more reading is not the solution. You have to give them hope,” Boffy said.

Andrew Peltier, 19, said if it weren’t for E.J. Sam Accelerated School and his classes at the career center, he likely would have dropped out of school.

Peltier said he started at E.J. Sam as a 16-year-old starting ninth grade. He’d struggled with school, partly because of ADHD and Asperger syndrome, but now is graduating with 19 automotive service excellence certificates and a collegiate technical diploma through the career center.

His parents, Brandon Melancon and Tara Svendsen, said when he connected with his automotive classes things just took off. He went from dreading school to being eager to attend and enjoying his homework, they said.

“I’m so proud. I just want to squeeze him,” Svendsen said.

Peltier encouraged teens in similar positions to learn about classes at the career center.

“Do it. It helped me out a lot. I’ve come a long way from where I started,” he said.

Andre Breaux, who launched the career center’s auto paint and body class this year, said he’s seen many of his students transform into committed, focused and mature young adults.

Breaux has owned his own shop, Excess Paint in Rayne, since 1998. He said there’s a dearth of young, qualified workers entering the auto paint and body industry and more work, both in damage repair and custom paint jobs, than most shops can keep up with.

He estimated a talented auto body technician and painter could earn upward of $100,000 annually within five years. Many teens don’t realize how lucrative the career path can be, or that it offers continuous opportunities to learn and grow.

Breaux said to his knowledge he’s the only high school auto paint and body teacher in the state and he’s hoping to attract and inspire the next generation of professionals.

“I’ve had so many jobs over the years and [teaching these kids] is the most rewarding job I’ve had by far. Priceless. I would pick this every day over making five times the money,” he said.

Openings remain for the career center’s auto paint and body, electrical, HVAC and machining/computer integrated manufacturing programs for 2022-2023 school year. More information is available at https://www.lpssonline.com/schools/careercenter


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