Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Cars for coursework

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A Newgate student polishes a car hood. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
A Minneapolis technical school teaches people how to fix up cars. The program pays for itself by selling cars the students repair. The tuition is free. For some students, the Newgate Center is a cheap education. For others it's a route out of poverty.

Minneapolis, Minn. — When Luis Gomez, 20, was looking for a technical school, he considered several programs before he settled on Newgate Education and Training Center in Minneapolis. He said all of the programs offered the auto body training he was looking for, but only Newgate's was free.

"I was actually going to go to Hennepin Tech. But why go there and pay and not really do any hands-on experience? Here you get all free stuff, no tuition or anything," he said.

Students who graduate even get a set of tools for free.

Newgate is a nonprofit organization that is completely self-supporting. It costs about $900,000 a year to run the program. Newgate gets all of its revenue from the sale of cars on which the students train. They buy some of the vehicles, and the rest are donated.

Instead of a traditional classroom, the students learn in the shop doing actual repair work. The students here don't take English and math classes, but they start with the basics of engine repair, then cleaning a car. Eventually, they start knocking out dents and dings, working their way up to more complex auto body work.

Newgate's been around for more than 25 years. More than 400 students have been through the 15-month program. About 20 students are enrolled at any given time.

Executive Director Ron Severson says Newgate offers options for students who have little interest in pursuing traditional coursework, but a lot of interest in cars.

"If you don't have a high school diploma, some places won't take you as a student. We don't care about that. We're looking at ability and attitude. Can the person perform, learn the task and perform it fast enough and skilled enough? We'd like them to get a GED, but that's their decision," Severson said.

Over the years, many Hmong refugees, as well as Mexican immigrants, have gone through the program. Fluency in English is not a requirement for enrollment. Other students come right out of high school, some come right out of jail.

One student had the option of jail time or the Newgate School. He opted for Newgate, earned his certification and now works full-time for a collision shop. Severson says many of the students arrive with problems that could be obstacles to their success in life.

"If they're willing to work on their problems, we're willing to help them with it. But they've got to come, they've got to be on time. There are things that they have to do or there's nothing we can do for them. If you're not here, we can't help you," said Severson. "We'll work with you on those problems of not being able to get up in the morning, but you've got to change your lifestyle. We'll buy you an alarm clock, if that's what it takes. We're not going to call you, though."

For students who do complete the program, Severson says there's 100 percent job placement. Craig Fohrenkamm, who owns Le Painter Auto Body in St. Paul, has hired at least four Newgate grads over the past 15 years.

"The people from that company have worked very hard for me. They're always willing to learn. At the time they had come out of school, they weren't real familiar with all the equipment we would have. They had some training, but not full-blown training, and they're able to go ahead and adapt very well," Fohrenkamm said.

Kia Pao Lee has worked at Le Painter for six years. He and his family came to the U.S. from Laos as refugees in 1990. Until then he'd mostly worked as a farmer. Lee says the Newgate School changed his life.

"If I compare to when I come to this country, after I graduated, I can own my own house, own my own car," said Lee.

After 25 years of training people like Lee to do collision work, Newgate now plans to expand its training to include engine repair.

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