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Why The School Board’s Decision to End The Racing Team Harms At-Risk Youth

By Aleksandar Stosovic, Staff Writer

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During the school board’s meeting on November 14th, it was decided that the Autos Club’s racing teams at Niles West and Niles North are officially disbanded.

The official decision to terminate Autos Club not only neglects the interest of future mechanics and automotive technicians, but also directly impacts the fate of many at-risk youth throughout District 219.

Despite pressure from parents, teachers, students, and alumni to keep the Racing Team, the board permanently removed the former club in an attempt to lower the cost of district spending and increase membership of other engineering programs.

The problem, however, is that this decision neglects the interests of students from Niles West and Niles North who have had their lives changed by the club.

“I feel lied to and cheated. I was able to attend one of the engineering programs at the U.S. Naval Academy with what I learned, and without this club I wouldn’t have good enough grades to attend college,” Niles West senior Dan Liston said. 

The goal of a high school is to prepare students for their future and guide them towards a career path- whether it be military, collegiate, or immediate entry to the workforce. Although the district tenaciously promotes its narrative that every student matters and that all interests be catered to, its actions prove otherwise.

“I deal with so many students from Niles North and Niles West on a daily basis,” public defender and Autos Club parent Steve Herczeg told superintendent Dr. Steven Isoye and the board during the audience-to-visitors portion of the board meeting. “The drug usage, violence, guns, the epidemic we have in our families and communities is outrageous and I am completely appalled that you can disregard students that are in need.”

Truly, Autos Club has served as a safe haven for many students who did not conform to standard methods of classroom learning. Considering that high school is a microcosm of society, all groups within the academic community should be given equal opportunities to learn– especially those who are at risk or planning to attend trade school instead of college. The existence of the club allowed students with low GPAs and below-average standardized test scores to build constructive relationships and engage in experiences that would directly translate to their future employment and the role they’ll play in their communities.

If past and present students alike are positively impacted by this club, it makes little sense to terminate it.

“I’m a technician at Jennings Chevrolet, and I graduated from Niles West two and a half years ago. The Racing Team is a big part of the reason I was hired for my full time job, and I can say that this racing program has done a lot for me and many of my friends. I probably would have dropped out if it weren’t for Mr. Richmond who encouraged me to do better in my classes,” alumnus Nick Isho said. “If some of these kids didn’t have a place to legally and safely race cars, I don’t know if they’d be around.”

Other than being a place where students studied cars, it was also a way of keeping them from racing in the streets and potentially harming themselves and others.

“The point of the competitive drag racing is to get rid of street racing. When kids turn sixteen they think they have the keys to the road which often leads to them driving recklessly and getting into accidents. This club prevents that by giving them an outlet to release their desire for fast driving within a safe environment. I credit a lot of who I am to that club,” said Niles West alum and Morton Grove police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Safety was the main reason the club was ended in the first place. The school board insisted that the insurance budget be increased tenfold despite there never being any incidents of harm done to students or cars alike. The excuse to end the club was baseless and the board did nothing at all to try to revive it from its year of inactivity (Autos Club has been de facto eliminated since October 2016). The way in which they dismissed the opinions of those who wished to keep the club running  further illustrated their lack of concern for students who do not fit the college-bound standard.

Before the meeting commenced, a pair of high achieving students were recognized in front of the board for their high test scores, exceptional grades, and their hundreds of volunteer hours. The accomplishments of the exemplary students were read by the principals of Niles North and Niles West, which visibly impressed the members of the board. Board members praised the high achievers. Minutes later they suppressed students who came to defend their right to learn what they are passionate about.

The most compelling student was Emily Herczeg, the first female president of the Racing Team at Niles North. She explained that colleges payed particular attention to her because of her membership in the club and that the schools she was interviewed by were amazed by her participation.

“I have a friend who went to a similar interview as me. She’s in engineering club, chem club, and other prestigious groups, yet her interview barely lasted fifteen minutes. My interview lasted half an hour. The college was so interested in what Autos has to offer, what our school was doing, and how I could bring it to their school,” Herczeg said.

The school board witnessed a glass ceiling being broken right in front of their eyes, yet failed to give the necessary support needed to push Herczeg further into her passion. This of course opposes our district’s stress on inclusiveness and participation of all students in different subjects and activities.

The Autos Club is being replaced with the Shell Eco Marathon Club, in which students will race environmentally friendly cars for as long as they can with a limited amount of fuel. The board expects the new club to gather former Racing Team members, as well as attract students who have never worked with cars before. Members of the former Autos Club know that the plan will not succeed.

“Instead of the at risk youth going to Richmond’s auto classes they’ll be forced into an engineering club like VEX Robotics or Girls Who Code, and stuff like that is for kids who are already planning to go to college or interested in more traditional engineering,” Liston said. 

Eliminating racing because of safety reasons is absurd. The cars are inspected before they are raced. They cannot drive through the quarter mile strip in less than twelve seconds, or they get disqualified. They drive in a straight line, and there is an ambulance waiting behind the finish line in case of an emergency. Cones separate the competing vehicles. Only seniors are allowed to operate the race cars. Furthermore, it is the students themselves who choose to race–not the sponsor.

“I think people have this misconception that I am guiding the racing. I do not select the racing for the students. They choose this. Every year we go through an election with the officers, and I ask the students what they want to do. We can do engine tear down, we can do high mileage, we can do anything. I don’t force students to do anything because it won’t motivate them. Clubs should be student run, and that’s the way I run it as a sponsor,” Autos Club sponsor Tim Richmond said.

No injuries have been caused in ten years of racing, and no damage has ever been done to the automobiles. The only injuries students on the Racing Team had came from the sports they played in school. 

As new generations of high school students will continue to be pushed to strive for good grades, high test scores, and ultimately acceptance into universities, many at-risk youth will continue to slip through the cracks and barely make it. The Racing Team offered learning opportunities and valuable relationships to students in need of such a program, but now they will be forced to look elsewhere.

“You talk about going to college, getting a formal education, getting pushed towards something you’re not motivated to do, it just deters you from learning,” alumnus John Wheeler said at the board meeting.  “Having that track to race cars prepares you with real world skills even if you don’t go to college. Many of us here took skills from high school and are using them in our work now, and its propelled us to careers that sustain families and support communities. We learned every day, every day was a new challenge. It’s the constant drive to keep learning and pursuing a dream that kept us alive and kept this program going.”

Race cars and teenagers are oftentimes associated with bad decision making and disastrous outcomes. At Niles North and Niles West, they fostered a group of young minds dedicated to learning, racing, and building relationships they would preserve long after they graduated. 

1 Comment

One Response to “Why The School Board’s Decision to End The Racing Team Harms At-Risk Youth”

  1. Ethan Moldofsky on November 20th, 2017 10:43 am

    “Instead of the at risk youth going to Richmond’s auto classes they’ll be forced into an engineering club like VEX Robotics or Girls Who Code”
    Why can’t they just continue participating in the auto classes or in the new auto club? There is no mention of the autos classes being cancelled, and engineering classes like CIM are great ways to learn to become a machinist, which you don’t need a college degree to do. What is the difference between the drag racing the club has done in the past and the Shell Eco Marathon racing? There is not enough information from this article about either type of racing, but from what I read about the Shell Eco Marathon at http://www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/shell-ecomarathon/americas/for-americas-participants.html , it seems like an extremely well organized event that not only involves longer races, but opens up more future opportunities because the car runs on renewable energy.
    Without actually looking at the statistics of drag racing injuries, you can’t argue whether or not the insurance prices are fair. Having an ambulance ready at the end of the track will not always help if you are in an 80+ mph collision. While there are other activities at West that have higher amounts of injuries, like football, the chance of one injury being fatal is probably much higher when racing. There are also far more football games then there are drag races, so it would be difficult to compare the injuries per student for each one. However, these two activities are very similar in how they encourage students to keep up their grades and give them a plan after college. If you are interested in following up on this issue or going to the Board to bring back the drag racing, I recommend finding national statistics or state statistics for the incident rates of these activities.

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