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Students take to roof for lessons
• CHS Manufacturing Academy seniors gain work experience
Solar installation
Mason Foster and Carlos Espindola, seniors who are part of the Ceres High School Manufacturing Academy, finished up a solar installation atop a roof on Lunar Drive on Friday. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Seven seniors from Ceres High School abandoned the classroom Thursday and Friday, donned hard hats and got down to the work of making one Ceres household less dependent on the electrical grid and more on the sun overhead. The students of the Ceres High School Manufacturing Academy received both instruction and guidance in the installation of solar panels on the roof of a low-income resident on Lunar Drive.

For about six years now Ceres High School teachers have teamed up with Grid Alternatives, a non-profit organization that introduces the benefits of solar technology to low-income communities. The organization has installed solar systems on hundreds of roofs since 2009. Students help install solar panels which they have learned about in the classroom.

Because the students’ work benefits low-income families, they are deemed as volunteers.

The Academy allows CHS students to get out of the traditional classroom setting each day and spend 50 minutes of hands-on learning about manufacturing.

“It’s a good way for the kids to get working experience and on-the-job training where they can learn about solar,” said Teacher Marcel Jackson. “They also get class credit.”

Some of the students are interested in working for the company after they graduate.

“They also get volunteer hours and once you get to a certain number of hours with their company you can actually be eligible for full-time employment. You have to have like 200 volunteer hours. We had one student a couple of years ago who did eight or nine installs and he had enough hours. He got the job but he got a better offer working at Gallo.”

A total of 54 seniors are being rotated through at least one installation for the school year. This was the second installation of eight that will occur this school year. One will take place this week in Modesto, however installations can take place between Stockton and Madera.

During the two days of work, students spend time on the roof – fitted with hard hats and safety harnesses – setting up the skeletal framework and installing solar panels. They also helped with conduit and run “dead” wires. The dangerous work of transferring electrical lines over is done by crews from the local power company, Turlock Irrigation District.

Jackson estimated that the solar installation was the first job experience for about three-quarters of the students involved.

“It’s very cool doing this,” said student Leo Juarez. “You got to learn a lot. You got to do a lot and it’s just a really cool time to just be with others and learning the same material.”

Juarez said he plans to become a mechanical engineer for a career.

“This is my first experience working.”

Both Mason Foster and Carlos Espindola appreciated how fun the experience was, as well as the knowledge they learned about the mechanics of setting up solar power.

Maggie Asencio was the only girl on the worksite and Jackson joked that “she did all the work.”

“It was a fun experience,” she said.

The Academy is considered a “school within a school” where technical trade skills are taught. Core classes, such as history, English, math and science, are taught.

The state grant calls for half of Academy students to be “at-risk,” including those struggling with grades, poor attendance or from a lower socioeconomic background.

The Academy evolved four years ago when CUSD educators went to local manufacturers and asked how schools can better prepare workers for Stanislaus County employer needs. Many who do the hiring for plants complained that students who directly enter the workforce are not skilled nor have a good work ethic. CUSD crafted a program designed to teach mechanical skills, application of academics to the work world and computer aided drafting (CAD). Van Meter said students are learning the development and design process used in manufacturing.

The Academy’s green focus has freshmen, sophomores and juniors working on specific projects. Seniors learn how to use wind turbines, work with solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells – all on a half-million dollars’ worth of equipment paid for by grants.