John Hladovcak can’t find a mechanic’s shop in Ottawa or Streator that doesn’t have at least one former student of his as its employ, a trend that continues as he shows Ottawa High School students the ins-and-outs of automotive repair.
For 22 years, the teacher who students refer to as “H” has been running them through what he calls the three Cs: complaints, cause and correction.
“Most of the problems we see in here are pattern failures,” Hladovcak said. “A lot of stuff, if they do a little bit of research and go through the proper troubleshooting steps, they’ll find their own solution.”
Seniors Joseph Kesler and Joseph Jorgenson were among the students going through that process as they used a lift to pick up a 2005 Chrysler Crossfire for a visual inspection of its undercarriage.
The first step involved in that process was to find the lift points, which they struggled with at first because of the Crossfire’s body makeup.
“My goal in here is to have a real world working shop where a customer brings in a car and the kids build a work order.— John Hladovcak, Ottawa High School auto mechanics teacher
The students figured it out quickly, though, when they spotted rubber supports underneath the car while Hladovcak watched. They placed the lift’s arms under the car and used a button to elevate it in the air.
“My goal in here is to have a real world working shop where a customer brings in a car and the kids build a work order,” Hladovcak said.
Like a shop, the students identified the problem as it related to the customer’s complaints. The customer complained the Crossfire had a shimmy once it hit 55 mph.
Students identified the Crossfire’s alignment was off, causing an imbalance of wear-and-tear on the tires. Their solution was to fix the alignment and get four new tires. All four tires had worn tread on the inside portion that faces inward toward the vehicle.
“It’s a lot of fun and inspires you,” Jorgenson said. “I’m learning hands-on, real-world skills and building toward a future while staying active at the same time.”
Jorgenson said a lot of different types of learners come through the shop. Some come in having worked on cars as a hobby, while others haven’t held a wrench in their lives. Hladovcak helps both learn.
Kesler brought in his own car, a 2009 Lexus RX 350, for work and said it’s one of the more complicated projects he’s worked on in class. It had to have the rack and pinion fixed, the inner and outer tie rods and shocks replaced and the alignment redone. Then it needed a new drive shaft and a lot of other things.
“That was quite the project,” Kesler said. “That was really difficult.”
Kesler likes his project cars, and he has another 2006 PT Cruiser he’s working on, he said.
The most important thing Hladovcak teaches the students doesn’t always involve putting a wrench in their hands. Instead, Hladovcak said, it’s the problem-solving skills that come with working on cars that he wants students to learn.
There are a lot of problems to solve, and the students get their pick of vehicles from teachers and students to work on. For example, the shop had a vehicle that needed its frame repaired because of a collision and another pick-up truck that was having issues with its power steering along with the Crossfire.
Hladovcak said he wants his students getting to a point where they can work on serpentine belts and the basics before they get into anything further, such as race cars.
“They know the terms, and they can get into something more specialized once they know how to safely do the work themselves,” Hladovcak said. “I don’t let them modify the car from the factory original. They need to know how to fix their daily drivers before they get into anything.”
He said the biggest change he’s seen in recent years is most cars can be worked on after watching a few YouTube videos, which have been helpful to him in teaching. If there’s something Hladovcak finds confusing, he can show a video and the students will pick up on it.
The process of watching the students figure it out is what Hladovcak finds rewarding, he said.
“Coming to school is not a chore, and I look forward to teaching every day,” Hladovcak said. “I’d go straight through summer vacation if they let me.”