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A group of Kealakehe High School students got a jump-start on their college careers through a unique collaboration with Hawai‘i Community College. Back row, left to right: Xander Loyola, Chase Fernandez, John Nakata, Daymon Pertubal, Kamrin Kam. Front row, left to right: Chris Ibarra, Justin Bancuud-Nishihara, Titon Riveira, Ryzaiah Botelho, Ken Takeishi.

Early College Automotive Students on the Fast Track

John Nakata, a Kealakehe High School senior, was in the school’s automotive mechanics shop recently, reflecting on the time he’s spent with a cohort of fellow students the past two years, learning how to rebuild engines, take apart transmissions and other auto mechanics skills. 

“I’m going to miss this place, the environment, the people,” Nakata said.

Nakata is one of nine students completing a unique program that was a collaboration between Kealakehe High School and Hawai‘i Community College designed to place students on the fast track to automotive careers.

Chris Ibarra, center, works with students.

Beginning their junior year, the students earned “dual credit,” meaning they received both high school and college credit from Hawai‘i CC, for the auto mechanics and general education classes they completed. The bottom line is that when they graduate from high school on Friday, May 28, they will already have completed one year of college and will be halfway to earning their two-year Associate of Applied Science Degrees in Automotive Mechanics Technology from Hawai‘i CC.

Hawai‘i CC delivers many Early College dual credit classes at Hawai‘i Island schools. Typically, however, those classes are in Liberal Arts. This is the first time Hawai‘i CC — or any college in the State of Hawai‘i — has offered a comprehensive Career and Technical Education program as part of Early College. 

Chase Fernandez, one of the students, said he likes getting a “head start” and added that knowing this is his career path keeps him motivated. 

“Now I know it’s really going toward my future, because this is the trade I want to get into, so I know if I want to get into this business I have to pay attention and do my work,” Fernandez said. 

The program was established to address some of the challenges faced by students and by the local automotive industry. Students from West Hawai‘i who are interested in Automotive Mechanics can face difficulties attending the Hawai‘i CC program in Hilo as they will either have to drive over or secure housing, which can be expensive. 

“This is a unique program intended to serve career-oriented students from Kona who want a hands-on program,” said Raynette “Kalei” Haleamau-Kam, Interim Director of Hawai‘i Community College – Pālamanui. “It is also designed to support our West Hawai‘i businesses by educating potential employees who are from this community. ‘O Pālamanui kahi e ho‘omaka ai ka huaka‘i (Pālamanui is the place where the journey begins).” 

Chris Ibarra, the Kealakehe High School auto mechanics teacher and a Hawai‘i CC alumnus, said it has been logistically challenging to align the program with Hawai‘i CC’s curriculum requirements. But he said it’s worth it, and the collaboration by all the interested parties has made it possible. 

“Our vision was to create an opportunity for interested students and prepare them for the automotive work force in our community through this early college program,” Ibarra said. “I feel our students are extremely fortunate to have this support and collaboration with Hawai’i P-20, Stupski Foundation, Kamehameha Schools-Kūlike-Pālamanui grant, Ēlama Project Scholarship, Hawai‘i Community College, Hawai‘i Community College - Pālamanui, Kealakehe High School, and West Hawai‘i automotive businesses. With this program we hope to assist with the need for automotive mechanics and technicians in our community.”

Angela Jackson, Associate Director, Hawai‘i P-20, Partnerships for Education, said the program helps improve access to higher education. 

“Our goal through this program is to make college more accessible and create pathways that prepare students with the certifications and experiences for a high demand career on Hawai‘i Island," said Jackson. 

With the students set to graduate, the intent now is to have them complete their second year of the Hawai‘i CC associate degree at Pālamanui with their Chemistry 100 requirement, and by creating internships with local businesses in Kona.

This coming fall, a second cohort of Kealakehe juniors will embark on this same path. Students interested in participating can contact the high school or Chris Ibarra at