Visalia Unified ag teacher wins $50,000 prize

Reggie Ellis

Visalia Technical Early College High School’s Travis Wyrick wins 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence

VISALIA – Travis Wyrick has given his students the tools to succeed in life and now Harbor Freight is giving him the tools to continue building their skills.

On Oct. 15, the tool and equipment retailer announced Wyrick, an agriculture teacher at Visalia Technical Early College (VTEC), was among 18 trades teachers nationwide to receive $50,000 as a winner of the 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Wyrick started at VTEC last fall but has been teaching agriculture for 12 years. He was also a finalist for the 2018 Prize for Teaching Excellence while teaching at Ann Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill, Calif. near San Jose. An alum of California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, Harbor Freight recognized Wyrick’s work to expose students to in-demand trades like welding, concrete, woodworking, agriculture mechanics and irrigation installation. Wyrick said VTEC works closely with College of the Sequoias to help students find a career path. As an early college program, about one-third of VTEC students concurrently take college courses.

“They often have a year or more worth of community college credits and got them at a great deal,” Wyrick said.

Wyrick has also found innovative ways to keep his students involved in hands-on learning without being able to come to school and the shop. He uses his website within the Schoology software adopted by Visalia Unified over the summer to create an information hub where students can access the syllabus, instructions, how to videos and other resources. Some of his classes are enrolled in a small engine repair course that provides them with a certification upon completion. Other classes receive kits with materials, tools and instructions.

He started the semester by sending a rope kit so students can learn knots and techniques to properly tie down objects for transport. Soon students will receive one of two kits. One will include sheet metal, pop rivets and tools to make their own toolbox. The other will include PVC piping and tools to build hand sanitizing stations that can be used throughout the community.

“It’s kind of like building your own birdhouse project,” Wyrick said, “you just have to make sure you get the tools back when it’s done.”

While Harbor Freight extolled Wyrick’s accolades, the teacher turned the focus to his students. He said VTEC’s FFA chapter has adopted a motto of “Make It Happen”, expressing a willingness to take on projects and apply themselves to more than just classwork. Since arriving at VTEC, the school’s FFA program has produced 10 state degree award recipients for 2020, tying the chapter record, four American degree recipients, a first for the chapter, and a student who qualified for nationals and finished in the Top 10. Less than 1% of FFA members receive the American degree, an accumulation of $10,000 and at least five years of time and effort into a project or multiple projects.

“Our FFA program is a great program,” Wyrick said. “Those who graduated in the spring and those still here want to get in here and work on projects. They have built a make-it-happen type of mentality.”

Before the governor ordered schools to shut down in mid-March, Wyrick said his students were repairing and refurbishing an old disc harrow for the Antique Farm Equipment Museum in Tulare and were midway through a project to repair a welding trailer for the shop. He said he hopes the funding will help the program continue to weather the effects the pandemic has had on hands-on learning and funding for schools.

“We try to do projects that benefit the school or help the community,” Wyrick said. “This funding could possibly insulate us from potential budget impacts after the pandemic.”

Grand Prize winners will each receive $100,000, with $70,000 going to their public high school skilled trades program and $30,000 to the individual skilled trades teacher behind the winning program. The 15 Prize winners will each be awarded $50,000, with $35,000 going to their public high school program and $15,000 to the teacher. Because of school, district and/or state policy regarding individual cash awards, the schools of two teachers will receive the entire prize winnings. Cash awards given to schools will support winning teachers’ skilled trades programs. Individual winnings can be used however the winner wishes.

“This year has been one of the toughest on record for skilled trades teachers as they switch between in-person, remote or blended learning—all while trying to do their life’s work of preparing the next generation of tradespeople,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “At a time when tradespeople are more essential than ever, so is trades education. We are honored and grateful to have the chance to shine a spotlight on these teachers’ amazing work.”

The Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Eric Smidt, the founder of national tool retailer Harbor Freight Tools, to recognize outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in U.S. public high schools and the teachers who inspire students to learn skills to prepare for life after graduation. As recent research from JFF (formerly known as Jobs for the Future) and funded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools found, students who “concentrate” (or take multiple trades courses as part of a program) are more likely to graduate than their peers. Upon graduation, students are prepared for either further education or work in fields that routinely rank among the hardest jobs to fill and that have come to be widely recognized as “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Trades teachers are educating and developing the tradespeople of the future,” Smidt said.  “Many of the students in their classes today will become—as soon as next spring—the workers who keep our critical care infrastructure, our communication networks, our homes and cars up and running. The prize is our way of saying thank you to their teachers.”

The 2020 prize drew more than 600 applications from 48 states and included three rounds of judging, each by an independent panel of experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership. The application process, which included responses to questions and a series of learning modules, was designed to solicit each teacher’s experience, insights and creative ideas about their approach to teaching and success in helping their students achieve excellence in the skilled trades. All learning modules are available here. This is the second straight year a Visalia Unified teacher has been a finalist for the Harbor Freight Award. Redwood High School auto teacher Ken Cox was a finalist in 2019.

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