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Institute plucks kids from street to excel

(Published May 7, 2001)

By SAM STRIKE

Staff Writer


Students enrolled at Excel Institute in Northwest Washington train to become certified auto technicians while at the same time earning their GED.


Excel Institute students check fluid levels of a car while working under the hood in the programís auto lab on the University of the District of Columbia campus. Executive Director George Starke expects to expand the lab soon and move it to Georgia Avenue.

As he drove to and from his Maryland car dealership everyday, George Starke began to recognize an untapped labor force in kids who were selling drugs or just living on the streets.

So when the former Washington Redskin chose the first class of students to attend his new Excel Institute three years ago, he plucked them straight from jail cells in the District.

The private two-year school he now heads as executive director is for "kids who were outside of the educational system," Starke said. He said he wanted to give them the opportunity to "get back into the system."

So he created a school that would not only allow them to get their graduate equivalency diploma (GED), but also be trained in the lucrative field of automotive technology. He said that while there are other vocational programs in the District, including training programs through the governmentís Department of Employment Services, many take only a few months to complete and they donít adequately prepare students for a career.

"If youíre not going to college, itís not a good town to grow up in," Starke said.

His private institute, located in Northwest Washington, offers academic and technical courses, and every student takes both curricula.

Starke said he chose auto tech because it is a career in which people can make enough money to support themselves and a family.

After retiring from professional football in 1985, Starke went into the car dealer business. He said that while there is a giant workforce for car manufacturers and parts makers, it is difficult to find people who are properly trained to fix todayís cars.

While once any kid who enjoyed taking things apart could work on cars, now they must have training because of the complicated and ever-changing technology of building cars, he said. He said his students can go just about anywhere in the world and be able to get a job because their skills are "portable" and because of a shortage of auto technicians everywhere.

Starke said he still doesnít know how to fix cars himself and joked that he should take some of his own classes.

It is very easy to get accepted to Excel, Starke said. All it takes is a person willing to try and willing to sit down and chat with the Super Bowl veteran.

Thereís "not a lot of process to get in. Reason is, I took it out," he said.

People who have a reading problem might be afraid of a pile of paperwork, and those are the people Starke is trying to reach. Excel is one of a few schools where an illiterate person can enroll because helping them become literate is part of the training program, he said.

Starke makes it even easier to attend Excel because there is no tuition. He raises all of the money to run the school, a promise he said he made to himself when he started it.

Still, most kids donít complete the school, Starke said. But he said he would be doing them a disservice if he were to allow them to graduate after substandard effort.

"If you want to make it, Iím there all the way Ė but you have to do your half," he said.

The studentsí "half" includes being drug-free and following what Starke calls his "no jerk rule." He said he used to have doís and doníts, but now he expects his students to know what is "acceptable behavior." He said students cannot be absent or late, and they attend school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day.

"We make it hard [for them], but thatís good," he said.

Many Excel students were raised without a father, or practically raised themselves, he said. Excel has counselors who help students get through school while handling their personal problems.

Forty-five students currently attend Excelís classes, including four women. About 150 are expected to enroll in the fall.

But there are many more young people in the District who donít plan to go to college and need vocational training to take advantage of the "bountiful employment opportunities" for skilled workers in the District, said Paul L. Vance, superintendent of D.C. Public Schools.

"Has anyone taken time to glance toward the heavens and see all the skyscrapers?" he said. He noted that the people who build those often come from outside the District.

With the enormous amount of construction projects in the District, "we have to make certain we can train young people to be competent to move into these jobs," Vance said.

Vance called the state of DCPS vocational education programs "weak" and said he has plans to expand and improve the now "not comprehensive and not advanced" programs scattered throughout the public schools.

Starke also was critical of the current state of vocational training in the D.C. public schools, which he attributes to a lack of commitment by school officials. While there used to be good technical training in the District, over time it worsened because schools dumped the "bad kids" into the programs because they thought that the "dumb kids took tech," he said.

But Starke describes youths who enroll in vocational programs as the smart kids, because the training programs are very challenging. The challenge for a good vo-tech school is to keep current with technology in the industry, he said, something which Excel does through the assistance of the Ford Motor Co., Excelís business partner which continually trains the schoolís instructors.

Starke said to run a successful vocational school, the private sector must be involved because "they know what they want their work force to know." Thatís something that the government canít do, he said.

Superintendent Vance agrees that vo-tech will not be successful "if itís done in isolation" and said that vocational training in the public schools is under-funded.

One of the problems in trying to establish new vocational programs is determining the degree to which parents want their kids to be enrolled, Vance said. The trend nationally is that parents shy away from it, which he said makes it difficult to create new programs if no one wants to participate.

Still, he said that vocational training is "extremely important" to students in the District.

"I do think we have to have an energized, rejuvenated vocational-technical career-based curriculum," Vance said. He said it will help to keep students in secondary school and will add to the learning capacity of D.C. citizens.

Starke said Excel plans to expand its training by offering students real experience in buying, selling and repairing cars. The institute hopes to open All Star Motors, an auto shop at 1515 14th St. NW, within the next month as an additional site. Starke said Excel also recently leased a building to house the school at 1120 Florida Ave. NE, where its classroom programs are expected to move soon.

Unlike most schools, Excel does not give its students the summers off. The most advanced students spend the season building a car from scratch. This summer they plan to build both a Ford Cobra and an Austin Healey, an English sports car.

Students now work on cars in an auto tech lab on the University of the District of Columbia campus. Excel is "in partnership" with the university but is not a part of it, Starke said.

When a student is enrolled in Excel, he or she is automatically enrolled in adult education at UDC. Last semester, nine graduates in a class of 30 moved on to college courses.

"Thatís pretty exciting," Starke said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator