(TNS) —  WENATCHEE, Wash. — When Conner Meza registered for an automotive technology class at Wenatchee Valley Technical Skills Center two years ago, it was more or less an act of desperation.

"I didn't know what I was going to do. I was pretty clueless in life and was going to drop out of high school," said Meza, then a junior at Eastmont High School.  He enrolled when he found out that he could make up some credits at Eastmont while learning to work on cars. He wasn't that into it at first, but it was a way to get his parents off his back. Gradually, he found out he liked working on cars.

"I got into it more and more," he said.

That happens a lot at the school, said Peter Jelsing, the skills center's director. While some students come to WVTSC — commonly known as Wenatchee Valley Tech — to get a jump start on a career or to follow a passion, many simply come to explore the options or get out of classes in a traditional high school setting, Jelsing said.

"What makes it special is that they have a choice. They come here because they want to. For some, it's what keeps them in school," said Jelsing, who took over as director this year after two years as the school's dean of students. Previously, he worked for eight years as a Wenatchee High School administrator.

"I'd heard about the tech center, but had never been out here," he said. Previous Director Jon Torrence invited him to come take a look, and apply for the dean's position. That's all it took. "From day one, I knew this was what I wanted to do."

Many students feel the same way.

Jerimiah Matthews is a River Academy student who enrolled at Eastmont so he could get the public school affiliation to get into the skills center's Criminal Justice/Police Science program.

"I want to be a deputy sheriff, hopefully in Chelan County. This is a real career jump for me," said Matthews. He's done police ride-alongs, crime scene investigations and is now learning about traffic violations just as he would in a real police academy. His classes earn him credits from Wenatchee Valley College, so he has a jump on his criminal justice college degree, too.

"This is an awesome school," he said.

Skills center programs can also be a relief for parents struggling to keep their children in school.

"This program saved our boy," said Don Meza, Conner's father. There were some ugly nights filled with mom and dad yelling and screaming in an attempt to keep their son from becoming a high school dropout, he said. He stopped by the school recently to thank Conner's teachers in person, and to donate a car to the program as a student repair project.

Tim Campbell, one of the school's two automotive technology instructors, said he could see Conner had an interest in the class, but it wasn't until he started challenging him to compete in regional and state skills competitions and a five-week job shadow program that Conner began to realize he could succeed.

"Conner gave himself a chance," said Campbell. Conner registered for more automotive classes his senior year. The classes earned him high school credits to add to his half days at Eastmont. He also earned Wenatchee Valley College credits. He began an internship working as a mechanic at Cascade Autocenter. After graduation, Cascade hired him parttime while sending him alternating semesters to a GMC automotive program at Shoreline Community College where he can earn higher-level mechanic certificates. He's promised a full-time job when he finishes, and the certification will get him a significant jump in pay, he said.

The auto technology class and an auto collision repair technology class are by far the most popular programs at the school, said Jelsing. The school had 85 applications for the fall semester auto tech class. A second instructor was hired so they could double the size of the class. A remodel of one of the center's buildings and construction of a third building last year made the expansion possible. The Wenatchee School District recently purchased adjoining property from the Chelan County Port District to expand the center in the future.

Plenty of tech center students go on to college, said Jelsing. But the center provides training for many students who are more interested in going directly into a career. The center provides solid training, job shadows and internships, and career readiness preparation.

"About 40 percent of high school students go on to college. But what about the other 60 percent? We need to address their needs," Jelsing said. "College is important, but we should be intentional about guiding all students to their needs and decisions. That's what we're all about."

©2016 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.