Photos by Matthew Gemmell | For the TidingsABOVE: Cory Hultz works on his welding at Ashland High School. FRONT: Ben O'Donnell works on his welding at Ashland High School.

Bill Cooney may not have a job in a month, but that won't stop him from prepping his state championship student for the June 25 national welding championships in Kansas City.

Cooney said it's not official yet, but he's been given the word that Ashland High School welding classes are getting burned, that is, cut from the school budget. Auto technology and woodworking classes are on half-time status and will remain so.

Like schools everywhere, the high school is strapped with budget cuts. Administrators singled out welding for two reasons: increased graduation requirements and low enrollment. Students are required to take more math, science and language classes, crowding out elective courses. Cooney has two welding classes with 12 students, and another three classes with between 18 and 20 students.

That's not great news for students who aren't academically inclined and don't see college in their futures.

Some students show up at school only for the vocational classes.

"I typically have to tutor outside of class or tell them to go to (other classes) since some will stay in the shop all day long," said Cooney. "One student is already coming less and less. He knows the class is going. I think he just comes to see me. He's only a sophomore, and he already has an outside job. I don't think he'll last."

Mike Titus, auto technology teacher, sees the same pattern. A retired teacher, Titus nevertheless returns to the high school to work with those students whose interests lie in the vocational areas such as the auto technology, welding and woodworking classes offered at the high school.

"Sometimes I'll get a kid in auto class and he's never there. Then I find him over in welding," Titus said. "And I say, 'Oh, you found your niche.'"

Neither teacher faults administrators, who they point out are faced with the tough decision of where to slice.

Yet both say vocation programs provide the hooks that hold some kids in school. Titus agrees with Cooney that part of what they do is not only teaching vocational skills, but imparting a sense of discipline and a sense of how the knowledge learned in other classes will help them on their vocational pathway.

Sometimes that means telling students they can't work on cars or in the welding shop if they don't get to their other classes.

Cooney and Titus's classes have yielded quite a few state champions.

Cooney is working with Ben O'Donnell, who won a state gold medal in general welding and qualified to go to the National Skills USA championship in Kansas City, where the nation's top 50 student welders will compete. To qualify, he had to place first in Oregon, beating out students from about 40 other schools, including schools that are specialized vocational and technical schools.

This will be the third time in nine years Cooney has a student qualifying for the nationals.

"It's a high-class competition &

it's quite a mind-blower," he said, adding that there's even high school kids working on aircraft at the competition.

The competitors will have to perform a number of welding techniques on a variety of materials. They'll also be given blueprints for a project which they will have to figure out how to complete themselves. Cooney is preparing O'Donnell for a welding maneuver, required in previous competitions, that calls for particular dexterity.

"I'm having him do at least 10 of those before he goes," he joked. "If he walks in there and they've changed it, he'll still have the dexterity."

Meanwhile, Titus is in Portland with two students, Dustin May and Jacob Trautman, who spent Friday morning in a state Ford Triple A competition. Competitors first had to complete a written examination before the top scorers were chosen to go to the state championships. Friday morning they were challenged with a brand-new Mercury with 10 different defects and an hour and a half to figure out what they were and how to fix them. Problems could include anything from lights not working to an engine that won't start. Cars are getting so complex that projections estimate that by 2014, mechanics will make a minimum of $38 an hour.

"It's a real hair-puller," said Titus, whose students have made it to state championships 12 times in 20 years.

May already won a state gold medal in auto technology and also qualifies to go to Kansas in June, and Trautman took a second place in precision machining technology.

There's a little catch, though. School funds don't cover the trip to nationals and both guys need about $800 for flight, lodging and meals so they can go. Cooney said any contributions are welcome and checks can be sent to Ashland High School, attn: Bill Cooney or Mike Titus, made out to Ashland High School Skills USA.

With the cutbacks coming, this could be the last time Ashland sends a welder off to such a lofty competition. Titus says the school will surely see another impact as well: "We'll no doubt see our dropout rate go up without welding."

Ashland High School Principal Jeff Schlecht is understanding, but realistic. Due to declining enrollment among kindergartners and first-graders, the elementary schools have already made as many cuts as they can reasonably make. The kindergarten and first-grade classes average about 160 to 165 kids compared to about 260 or so graduating seniors this year, according to Schlect. That means the higher grades can expect less students in the coming years.

"Now the cuts are just starting to hit the middle school and the high school," Schlecht said. "The cuts will get more dramatic in the next three to four years.

Still Schlect prefers to remain optimistic.

"We want to build, not make cuts," he said, talking about his now-impossible goal of providing an elective for every student in the system.