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Sparks Unplugged

West Philly High's Auto Academy offers rare hope.


From the May 2, 2007 Philadelphia Weekly

Luis Aviles meticulously prepares the wires for a new speaker system in his friend's fire-engine-red 1996 Dodge Neon. He twists the frayed ends together, solders the wires, wraps them in plastic and melts the plastic with a heat gun.

Without saying a word, he pops the molding from the floorboard and gently tucks the wires underneath. Then he pops the molding back into place.

As he moves on to the next set of tweeters to be installed, another student at West Philadelphia High School's Auto Academy hops into the car and cranks up the volume in the tricked-out sedan with a trunk-size subwoofer.

The spacious garage fills with booming bass.

Aviles, an 18-year-old senior, just keeps tending to the wires without changing his expression.

"This is like a way of life for me," he says - although he prefers working on engines, not audio equipment.

"Luis has 10W-30 running through his veins," jokes teacher Ron Preis.

The serene, heavyset Aviles - with a hint of chin hair and a faint mustache - is lucky he found the Academy. In his younger days he used to help his friends steal car stereos. He raced motorbikes on city streets. He hit one of his teachers, fought with his parents and failed ninth grade.

He was on a path to destruction.

"If I wasn't here," he says, "I probably would've been into drugs by now."

Aviles now earns honor-roll grades, and he's captain of the electric vehicle team that has won the national alternative-fuel competition against major universities and environmental professionals for two years running.

"School is my home away from home," he says. "It keeps me out of trouble."


The next mayor, whoever he may be, will face a series of massive challenges during the first year of his administration - combating violence and replacing the outgoing police commissioner, dealing with powerful city unions and their bulging pension plans during upcoming contract negotiations, and finding enough cash to keep mass transit operating.

But arguably the most important decisions will be how the next mayor will help save the ill-funded School District of Philadelphia, and whom he will champion to replace the district's current CEO Paul Vallas, who announced his resignation last month.

The district is facing a $73 million deficit this school year, and could face up to a $156 million fiscal gap for 2007-'08. The School Reform Commission, which governs the School District, estimates a cumulative deficit of $1 billion in five years.

Hiring freezes are likely on the horizon. Charter schools may be closed.

Experts fear that if the quality of education declines, crime may increase, economic development may slow, and the quality of life in the city overall may suffer.

"The issue of public education is intertwined with every other issue in the city," says city councilman Wilson Goode Jr. "It's directly intertwined with the issue of crime and murder."

Goode says only 24 percent of the 406 people murdered in Philadelphia in 2006 were high school graduates. Only 18 percent of the perpetrators were documented as having earned a diploma.

Better schooling would've given those people options, says Goode, who's leading the charge for restructured city financing for schools.

"Education is the key component in moving the city forward," he says.


"How are you going to make students safe without treating them like criminals?" West Philadelphia High School junior Lawrence Jones-Mahoney says he asked the mayoral candidates during a recent forum on education. "I felt like none of them really answered it."

Bob Brady and Tom Knox want cops in schools, a move with which Jones-Mahoney disagrees.

"If you're treated like criminals, you're going to act like criminals," he says, noting the recent riots, fights and fires at the main building of West Philadelphia High School.

He found the whole forum frustrating.

"I just felt it was pointless," says the thoughtful student who serves on the Philadelphia Student Union and has a 3.5 grade point average. "Well, it made me realize they didn't say anything."

He feels betrayed by Vallas, whom he says made promises he didn't keep. Jones-Mahoney wants a new building to replace the 95-year-old West Philadelphia High. He wants smaller schools throughout the district. And he wants to see the next school chief be a person with a background in education, not a budget-driven person like Vallas.

"He listened to us," Jones-Mahoney says. "But he promised so many things to other people, he kind of put us on the back burner."

Simon Hauger, site administrator for the Auto Academy, says society benefits by taking care of young people rather than letting them fail and fend for themselves. Students who perform poorly in school have to enter expensive summer school programs. Youths who drop out completely often enter the world of crime and drugs, and they then become a drain on society.

"In the long term, it costs more money for students to fail," Hauger says. "Somebody needs to say these kids are valuable."


"I stay away from those three corners," Aviles says as he surveys the intersection of Ninth and Erie, where he lives. "That's where the drug dealers hang out."

The only corner he frequents is the one where he catches the bus - the first leg of his 45-minute journey to school that has him catching two trains and walking six blocks.

During the afternoon, he says, his neighborhood is calm. The wide, tree-lined streets are full of children in school uniforms. But in the evening things get unpredictable.

"It's like at any moment you could hear gunshots," he says. "It's just crazy."

Despite having his six older siblings in Philadelphia, Aviles wants to move to Florida after graduating this summer. He wants to take his mother somewhere safe.

"I'm ready to go into the workforce and get my hands dirty," he says. "I just want to take care of my mom for once."