Inside a white tent at the Convention Center Auto Show, tucked between the bumper sticker peddlers and the fellows hawking polishing cloths, Ben Avila hands out flyers touting one of the day's best deals--low-cost training to launch a career in auto repair.
Avila teaches automotive repair in the Los Angeles Unified School District's adult education program, but he sometimes feels more like a salesman than an instructor, as he tries to keep his classes full.
"Our jobs depend on having enough students for our classes," he said, "so here I am."
Avila and his fellow automotive teachers from the district's 11 occupational training centers have taken turns manning a booth at the Auto Show this week in a novel attempt to spread the word about the classes they teach.
"This (adult education) is a small division that depends on enrollment, and the teachers have the responsibility to keep the enrollment up," said Avila, who, along with his colleagues, works for the district under a six-month contract.
When a class drops below about 12 students, the district closes it and the instructor is out of a job, Avila said. "So you either try to get two or three part-time (teaching) jobs to make a living, or you do what you have to to keep your class open."
For some teachers, that means phoning class dropouts to try to entice them to re-enroll, or visiting local high schools to promote their classes.
"I know one guy who used to pass out flyers advertising his class on the weekends," Avila said. "He'd go to parking lots with his wife and kids, and they'd hand out flyers to everybody."
This is the first time the teachers have stumped at the Auto Show, which ends Sunday and is expected to draw a half-million visitors from around Southern California to see the latest in automotive technology and design.
Their booth, donated by Auto Show management, features a cutaway of a car engine--also donated--and a video, by Avila, of classroom scenes from the automotive program.
"We figured this was a place to get people who might have an interest in learning automotive repair," Avila said. So far, only a few people have signed up for the classes, but the teachers are hoping that visitors to the show will take the information back to their family, friends and neighbors.
The automotive program is one of a variety of classes offered by the district's adult education division, ranging from electronics and computer science to home economics.
The entry-level classes are free to high school students and dropouts and cost less than $50 a semester to others. Students can enter the classes at any time during a semester, and upon completion, the instructors help them to find jobs.
Most of the district's adult education classes are not hurting for enrollment, said Harlan Barbanell, who heads the adult education division. "Business is good. . . . We run classes all day and most evenings, 12 to 14 hours a day. Most have Saturday classes too," he said.
But enrollment in the automotive program has been "decreasing drastically" in recent years, said teacher adviser Blas Hernandez, partly because the field has become more technically complicated and computer-oriented, requiring better reading, writing and computation skills.
"I think it's a little frightening for some students to go in there and realize that you're not just going to twist nuts and bolts," he said.
The teachers are all professional auto mechanics who have completed two years of a college program that enabled them to earn adult education teaching credentials.
"We do a good job of keeping our students," Avila said. The dropout rate for his six-hour class last semester was 17%--compared to the district's high school dropout rate of almost 40%, he said.
"But we've got to get the word out about what we offer. It's our self-interest, but it's more for the people who benefit from these classes.
"These guys are here trying to change their lives. Some of them come in wearing the same shirt every day for a year, but they come. There's something about seeing that kind of motivation that makes it worthwhile."