Dad’s Wrench Lesson Becomes Student’s Passion

Work Experience Part of Kent Transition Center Training

Trinton says of his work at the bus garage, “You get to know new things you didn’t learn before”

When Trinton Stanek was a youngboy, his father showed him how to take a tire off his 1972 pickup, then handed him a lug wrench to do it himself. It was a lesson in mechanics the son never forgot.

“He showed me once. If I didn’t do it right, he wasn’t going to show me again,” Trinton recalls. “But I did it right. He was proud of me, ‘cause I did it right.”

Kent Transition Center

KTC provides students with job skills as well as extra academic help. Based at the campus of the Kent ISD, at Knapp Street and East Beltline Avenue NE, it serves both special-education and general-education students who have difficulties in general education classrooms.

In their junior year, students spend part of their school day in KTC classes, where they learn how to adapt to their learning challenges as well as explore possible career fields. They spend their senior year at job sites, where they get real-life vocational training with the help of business mentors and KTC staff.

KTC currently offers training in five career areas: facilities maintenance, hospitality, introduction to child care, retail and transportation. Plans are under way to begin a new program in manufacturing.

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Trinton’s father, David, a backyard mechanic, died four years ago at age 48. But he likely would be proud of what Trinton is doing now, working to keep Cedar Springs school buses in good running order.

The Cedar Springs High School senior puts in about 12 hours a week at the district’s bus garage as part of a work-based learning program. He gets school credit for refueling, repairing and maintaining the district’s 41 buses to help ensure they safely deliver more than 3,400 students each day.

The arrangement comes through Kent Transition Center, which provides vocational training to juniors and seniors in both special and general education throughout Kent County. Trinton spends his mornings at the garage and afternoons in high school.

The program has been a lifesaver for a young man who had struggled in school and with the sudden death of his father, says Lynne Stanek, his aunt and legal guardian.

“He’s been dealt a hard deck in life. My brother was everything to him,” Stanek says. “But that job keeps him grounded.

“It’s wonderful to see him happy to talk about it,” she adds. “He can look at himself and say, ‘I’m doing what my dad wanted me to do. He would be proud of me.’”

Teaching Hard and Soft Skills for Workforce  

Trinton is one of about 230 students enrolled at Kent Transition Center, a half day program for juniors and seniors. Their junior year is spent at the KTC on the Kent ISD campus, where they can take two classes in one of five career areas. If they do well, they spend year two at job sites where they get hands-on experience and coaching from employers and KTC staff.

“The ultimate goal is to train students with the necessary career and employability skills to live as independently as possible,” says Michael Spagnuolo, a KTC work-based learning facilitator. “We want to make sure they have the confidence, the soft skills and hard skills necessary to maintain and grow in that field if they want to.”

By receiving instruction at their learning levels and close oversight at their work sites, students have a better chance of eventually not only getting jobs but keeping them, Spagnuolo adds. Students can continue in vocational education after they complete the program or go directlyto jobs.

Trinton is a good example of how students grow in confidence and knowledge through the program, Spagnuolo says.

“It’s amazing to watch — from the beginning of the school year to the end — these kids just blossom. The districts tell me all the time, ‘What did you do to our student? He’s a completely different kid.’”

Trinton Stanek, right, provides needed help to chief mechanic Josh Gates at the Cedar Springs bus maintenance garage

A Genius at Fixing Motors

Lynne Stanek uses the same phrase about her blossoming nephew. But when he moved to Cedar Springs as a freshman following his father’s death, things didn’t go well at first.

“They threw some hard classes at me,” Trinton says. He was getting failing grades, his aunt recalls, and would come home and ask, “Why did I have to be born stupid?”

He was definitely not stupid but did have cognitive impairments, a district evaluation showed. He was put into a special-education program that leads to a certificate of completion rather than a standard diploma. As a sophomore, through that program he worked at the Weingartz equipment store, helping assemble leaf-blowers and other machines.

His junior year he took automotive and facilities maintenance at KTC, further pursuing the mechanical bent that had been nurtured by his father.

“He put a wrench in Trint’s hand and taught him everything he knew,” Stanek says. “Trint can fix any motor, from a rototiller to a weed-eater to one of his teacher’s pencil sharpeners. I don’t care what it is – if it’s got a motor, he can fix it.”

Trinton has plenty to fix at the bus garage. Working with chief mechanic Josh Gates, he’s replaced brake drums, repaired seats, changed muffler clamps and done other tasks required by the wear and tear of students riding over the district’s 110 square miles. One recent morning he climbed atop a bus to inspect a malfunctioning antenna.

He gets up at 5:30 a.m. and boards a bus at 7 in order to get to the job by 8.

“I haven’t missed one day of school yet,” he boasts on a recent morning, his face still damp from refueling buses outside. “All I’ve got is six months to graduate, and that’s not too long.”

Helping Out on Job and at Home  

While KTC students normally work two different job sites, Trinton is happy to stick at the garage all year. That’s fine with Gates, who can use the help as the only full-time mechanic. A second one was let go in budget cuts.

“He picks up (tasks) really quick,” Gates says. “He retains stuff really well, too. I tell him stuff once and he tells it right back to me.”

“He’s been a lifesaver as far as being able to do those small jobs that normally would be low priority,” says Jerry Gavin, Cedar’s director of maintenance.  “We try not to look over his shoulder too much, so he can have that confidence level.”

Cristi Bentley, a teacher consultant, says Trinton increasingly “feels prepared for his steps into the real world.”

His aunt Lynne has seen him grow in other ways.

“His self-esteem has gone from like a two clear up to 11. He’s really got a purpose in life now. He knows if he can do this he can go on to other things.”

Trinton sees himself going into automotive and small-engine repair. In the meantime, he helps out his aunt financially by doing small jobs for neighbors, and stays active in his church youth group. And he goes to the garage early each day, continuing the mechanical education his father began long ago.

“You get to know new things you haven’t learned before,” Trinton says. “It feels good.”

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Kent Transition Center

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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