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Profile: Dan Sunia

After completing a celebrated downtown project, this Petaluma High School manufacturing technology teacher is setting new priorities

Published: Wednesday, September 20, 2006 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 19, 2006 at 6:43 p.m.

Name: Dan Sunia

Occupation: Manufacturing technology teacher at Petaluma High School. Dan teaches two beginning classes and one advanced class.

Family background: Dan was born in Fort Benning, Ga., and his family moved to South San Francisco when he was a year old. His father was an elementary school principal and his mother worked for Jaguar. He has two siblings, and married his wife, Joyce, a retired school secretary, in 1966. They have two children, Kerry, a registered nurse, and John, the manager of a sheet metal company. Dan and Joyce, who moved to Sonoma County in 1997, have three grandchildren.

Career background: Dan graduated from South San Francisco High School in 1963. Then he went directly into a machinist apprenticeship program at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco. Dan started out as a laborer at Hunter’s Point, and moved up through the machinist trade. Hunter’s Point closed in 1974, and then he worked at Mare Island Naval Shipyard until it closed in 1996. By that time he was a general foreman and supervised around 200 people. Dan retired in 1997 after working at McClellan Air Force Base, and then went to California State University, Sacramento to study vocational education.

What were some of your interests as you grew up? “Playing neighborhood sports and working on cars.”

What attracted you to machinist work? “My first experience working with machines was in a high school metal shop class. At that time, all the boys took wood shop and metal shop classes, and also learned welding and electrical work. I stuck with metal shop throughout high school and eventually became aware of the apprenticeship program at the shipyard.”

How did you begin teaching? “First, I managed the apprenticeship program at Mare Island. After the base closed, I was looking for something else to do, and teaching seemed to be a natural thing for me.

“So, I began teaching computer applications at Sonoma Valley Adult School, and then, in 1999, I taught in the evenings in a machinist apprenticeship program at the Petaluma High School shop. In 2003, Rollin Gehring, who had been the metal shop teacher at Petaluma High School for 31 years, retired, and I replaced him.”

In 2003, Petaluma High School won a contract to build downtown benches, trash and recycling containers, and bike racks. The work was done in association with Tom Richards’ design students and Gene Karas’ construction students.

How did the downtown project progress? “Students produced one bench per day when we were in full production. Since then we’ve been making residential benches for sale to students, their families and the community. We’ve delivered 85 benches.

“Primarily, my advanced students worked on the benches. During the first semester, my beginning class learned the fundamentals, and during the second semester they got a little more involved with bench building.”

The project was featured on television station ABC-7 in San Francisco and a nine-minute video about it was made, in cooperation with the city, Petaluma City Schools and the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Did you receive much feedback about the bench project? “I get a lot of very positive feedback. I get calls from people as far away as Oregon who have visited Petaluma, and want to buy a bench. People like the benches, and appreciate that they were done by high school students. They’re built to last. I tell my kids that they’re going to take their grandchildren down to sit on those benches. The kids look at me funny, but they hear me.”

How did your shop obtain four new machines this semester? “We bought a milling machine used for the removal of metal by feeding a work piece through the periphery of a rotating circular cutter and a lathe machine (used for shaping metal or wood) with project funds, and Haas Automation in Southern California was so impressed with what we are doing that it gave us a computerized, numerical-control milling machine and another lathe machine. We have $200,000 worth of brand-new equipment. Our shop will be called the Haas Technical Education Center.”

Do you work with other school departments on projects? “Yes, we work closely with the science, English and math departments, because these fields relate to our work.”

Are you involved in any other work?: “I teach adult apprentices in my manufacturing technology classes at Petaluma High School through the Petaluma Adult School. It’s sponsored by the National Tooling and Machining Association.”

What are your students doing this academic year? “Now that we have new, sophisticated machinery, I’ll be teaching students how to use it.

“Also, some of them are participating in the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, an eight-module certification program for entry-level skills. We have some great equipment now and we’re putting together an advisory team. Students receive a certificate after completing the curriculum. Seven students studied for the first module last school year, and passed. They did it on their own time, during tutorials. My goal this year is to become only of only a few NIMS-accredited schools in California.”

How do you motivate students to be highly productive? “I try to treat the kids as I would an employee. I emphasize strong work ethic by holding them responsible and accountable for what they do. I grade them every day on what I call ‘workability,’ which begins by showing up on time and having the right tools.

“It takes a while for some students to become accountable — particularly freshmen, because they can be immature. But it’s really fun to watch them grow. By the time they get to their third and fourth year, they’re just great. They’re into it.

“Also, it makes a difference that my students don’t make things merely for hobbies: They can see the results of their work downtown.”

What are some of your hobbies?: “I like to fly fish, do a little ‘off-roading’ in my jeep and travel. But I’ve been busy doing the downtown project.”

— Interview by Dan Johnson

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