By Kim Barto Meeks
Henry County high school students are bringing extra lives to classic arcade games, thanks to an electronics class that teaches real-world career skills.
If you’ve visited Uptown Pinball in Martinsville during the past year, you may have noticed stickers in the corner of many of the game screens that read “Serviced by the Henry County Career Academy.” In addition to making repairs to business owner Mike Haley’s impressive collection of games, many of the units in the arcade were found, refurbished and sold by the students.
Clients include not only Uptown Pinball, but private collectors and video game enthusiasts throughout the region. Career Academy classes sell the machines for between $400 and $700. They sold and shipped out several units as Christmas presents before schools dismissed for the holidays.
The best part, in Career Academy Principal Mike Minter’s eyes, at least, is that “it’s about having fun while we learn.”
Previously, schools spokesperson Monica Hatchett said, the county’s two high schools had different career and technical programs. That changed last year, after the Henry County Schools Career Academy opened in the former Figsboro Elementary School building as the division’s center for what used to be known as vocational education.
There, students from both Bassett and Magna Vista high schools can attend a half-day of hands-on, career-focused curriculum on a subject of interest, whether it’s electronics, cosmetology, or agriscience.
The first year of the Career Academy, there were 72 students. This year, “enrollment has jumped” to about 200 students, Minter said.
Repairing video games is part of the Industrial Maintenance and HVAC (heating and air conditioning) classes taught by Jerry Byrd.
“They could learn these skills on circuit boards, but this is a lot more fun,” Hatchett said.
Byrd agreed. “The video game repair covers a lot of the competencies in a creative way. It sparks the students’ interest,” he said.
The partnership with Uptown Pinball started about a year ago. Career Academy students have fixed up and sold games such as Pole Position, Victory Road, Blasters, Street Fighter 2 and Space Invaders, among many others that can be played at Haley’s arcade on East Church Street.
“Jerry [Byrd] has a knack for finding rare games. He finds the classics, and the students redo them,” Haley said. “Now, people coming from two and three hours away are enjoying his work.”
In addition to purchasing games, Haley contracts with the classes to maintain the approximately 170 machines in his collection. “Things have to be repaired periodically — monitors go out, or joysticks break, and they step up to fix them,” he said.
The business was recognized by the Virginia School Boards Association with a VSBA Business Honor Roll award in spring 2019 for its support of the school district.
“It’s a good partnership,” Haley said. “It’s something you don’t see in schools. It’s a very unique class. Uptown Pinball has definitely benefited from it.”
Minter described Byrd, who just this week was named the Career Academy’s Teacher of the Year, as “like American Pickers” for his skill in finding old arcade machines for his class to work on.
One visitor from Richmond toured the facility in spring 2019 and saw the class working on a World War II fighter pilot game he remembered from his childhood. Byrd was able to find the original game unit on Facebook Marketplace a few months later, worked on it for about four months and finally sold it to the man as a Christmas present for his children.
“It was meant to be,” Minter said.
Back at the Career Academy, senior Tyler Costa demonstrated a golf arcade game that, three days prior, had been “non-working and completely destroyed,” Minter said.
While there are still cosmetic and structural improvements to be completed, the circuit board and wiring has been repaired. The basic structure of the electronics helps students learn repair skills that transfer to a variety of different fields, he said.
Costa, for example, has already enlisted in the Army and plans to work in chemical equipment repair after he finishes high school. The machines they work on are not exactly the same.
“We fix machines that purify water,” Costa said, “but getting to mess around with stuff like this in class is helpful, too.”
“You’ll use a lot of the hands-on skills you’ve learned here,” Minter told him.
Pointing to the wiring under a game console, Minter said, “The joystick that works this is the same as in a crane.”
Not just about games
A lot of the repair work entails “learning how to read the schematics,” he said. “Sometimes they come to us in different languages, and students have to figure it out.”
On a recent afternoon, Byrd was showing students Hunter Myer, Ashton Hancock, and Noah Hubbard how to take measurements as part of repairs to the outside of a racing game that looked like it had seen better days. The original wooden base of the game was broken, so the students had to create a new base out of sheet metal.
“They have to make brackets, measure and cut, bend the sheet metal, and weld it,” Byrd said.
In the sheet metal shop, as sparks flew at different workstations, various metal desks and appliances could be seen in the center of the room. These are future projects, Minter said. “A lot of people bring us things and ask us to fix them. We get dryers, refrigerators, desks.”
Last semester, for example, the class found a flat-screen TV that had been thrown away. With a $5 part and some tinkering, students got it back in working order, and it sold for $400.
Outside the metal shop sits another future project: a small purple electric car. It will take about two years for students to restore the car, Minter said.
High school students in Virginia are now required to earn an industry credential or career-related license before they can graduate. Byrd’s students, for example, earn EPA refrigerant certification as part of the class.
“If you work in HVAC, that’s a requirement,” Byrd said. “It’s transferable to anywhere within the U.S.”
The HVAC class also installed the air conditioning and heat in the school building, Minter said.
Other programs at the Career Academy also emphasize real-world projects whenever possible. Cosmetology classes, taught by Nacorya Waller, open to the public each semester and offer discounted hair and nail services, giving students the chance to practice on actual clients. They do a brisk business during prom season, Hatchett said.
Normally, the Career Academy is also home to live animals raised by students in the agricultural science program. This week, however, the only animals on site were three hogs in the freezer that had been butchered, processed and packaged.
Two were named Minter and Rod (short for Rodriguez), after the school’s two administrators. The other was named Daryl, for teacher Daryl Holland. Students have the opportunity to obtain loans, buy livestock, raise the animals, send them for processing, and then sell the meat in the community as part of the class.
Students can also study forestry, equine management, veterinary sciences, and small animal care. People bring in their pets for students to bathe, care for, and “learn how to interact with different animals,” Minter said. “We’ve had iguanas, snakes, and dogs.”
No cats, however, he said. “Cats generally don’t like to be bathed.”
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.