Chamber picks Vale auto instructor for top award

Drew Barnes receiving the High School Educator of the Year award from Chamber president Jessica Kulm at the Vale Chamber of Commerce banquet in June. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE — For years, high school students were told that the key to success was a four-year degree, a dominating narrative that left a dearth of trade workers entering blue-collar fields. 

As the demand for trade skills increases, Vale High School’s automotive technology program continues to deliver under the leadership of Drew Barnes.

“Right now we can’t even keep up with the demand in the market,” Barnes said. “It’s a high demand, high wage job right out of school.”

Barnes took home the High School Educator of the Year award from the Vale Chamber of Commerce banquet in June. Barnes, who taught 57 students technical skills in the last school year, said he’s honored the community trusted him to lead the legacy program. 

“I’ve lived in a lot of places and I’ve never seen the kind of support that this little community has,” Barnes said. “It’s been a great home.”


Since taking over the program in 2011 from Merle Saunders, Barnes led Vale to win two Ford/AAA national championships, a competition that requires two-person teams to debug mechanical and electrical problems in a car as quickly as possible and drive it across the finish line.

That particular competition ended in 2015 – Vale High School took home the national title that year – after AAA pulled out, but the program is still active in competitions from local to national levels. The auto industry is constantly changing as more sophisticated technology is introduced to new models. 

While Barnes could just teach his students the basic mechanics that stand the test of time, he chooses to stay up to date with his training and certification, and include new technologies in his curriculum. 

“I do hours and hours of training,” Barnes said. 

Now that school is out for the summer, Barnes is off to train in Canada for a week to work on hybrid engines and electric interior amenities. While the teacher may be without courses for a couple months, he still surrounds himself with all things auto as he accompanies students to competitions, educates himself on the latest developments in the field, updates the curriculum and, of course, repairs anything that might go awry with his personal vehicles. 

What car won’t see action this summer? Probably his 1962 Chevrolet Bel Air, a project car he’s had since high school.

Barnes, who is constantly disassembling and putting back together car parts for his job, says that “rebuilding cars” is something he might pick back up after retirement when he has more time and money.

Barnes attributes the program’s achievements to the curriculum and expectations for excellence that Saunders set before him, but also to the shop environment he continues to foster.

“I don’t have expectations of my students that I don’t have for myself,” Barnes said. “It’s about building trust and relationships with these kids. They’re not just another number in the system.”

Barnes treats the course like he would a shop where the students are paid with a grade that reflects their skills and professionalism.

Barnes says the ever-evolving field of auto mechanics is a challenge, but also what makes him and his students strive to keep learning and improving on their skills. That combination of determination and team building is what keeps Barnes in Vale.

“I haven’t looked back. It’s been a great career,” Barnes said.

Have a news tip? Reporter Isabella Garcia: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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