Aviation high schools help students, industry

 - November 1, 2006, 11:50 AM

Aviation high schools and aviation programs aimed at high-school students have been providing the industry with a trained work force for more than 80 years. The goal of the early programs was primarily to serve the needs of the industry by ensuring a steady stream of trained mechanics. More recent programs focus on the needs of the students as much as the needs of the industry, using aviation, and its real-world applications, to motivate students to learn.

When New York City public schools started Aviation High School in Queens in the 1920s, the school’s purpose was to supply the aviation industry with well trained and well educated aircraft mechanics. When Aviation High School at Boeing Field, south of Seattle, started classes last fall, however, the idea behind it was to use aviation as a means of keeping young people motivated and excited about high school.

Despite the different approaches, the result of both programs and others like them has been and will be thousands of well trained and motivated young people interested in working in the aviation industry–and, it is to be hoped, providing a source with which to replenish the dwindling ranks of the aviation technician. At the same time, the students appreciate the opportunity to earn some college credits while working toward their high school diplomas.

High school aviation programs  take varied approaches to aviation education. Perhaps surprising is that there are so few aviation high school programs and that several of them were new this school year.

New York state has probably the most extensive series of aviation high school programs in the country. The star of the system is Aviation High School in Queens, where about 2,000 students learn the mechanics of aircraft while meeting all the basic state education requirements. The school is about a 20-minute shuttle ride to both New York international airports, where students go to get some of their practical education.

New York is proud of the way it helps keep the airline industry going with its high school graduates, said Alan Silverman, program manager for trade, technical and industrial programs for secondary schools in the state of New York. He said Aviation High School produces about 15 percent of the aviation technicians for the industry.

Graduates of New York’s Aviation High School leave with up to 60 college credits. In addition, many have earned their airplane maintenance certificates (both airframe and powerplant) and some have jobs waiting for them in the industry immediately after graduation. Others go on to college to study engineering, aviation management or aviation law. Some become pilots or go on to study in another field, such as medicine, but use their high school training to get a job to finance their education.

Some students choose to take a fifth year at the school’s annex job training program at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the industry molds employees to work on its aircraft. Aircraft maintenance workers, who work for United, JetBlue and other airlines, mentor the students. The school has 14 aircraft on site.

In addition to its four-year school focused on the aviation industry, the state of New York also offers technical education programs at three other locations, where students can study airplane maintenance for about four hours a day during their junior and senior years of high school. About 30 to 40 students take advantage of each of these programs, according to Silverman. They graduate with the same number of credits and the same opportunities to pass the industry exams as the students who graduate from the four-year Aviation High School, but their work is concentrated into two years.

Although New York state started its aviation education programs to meet the needs of industry, Silverman said, the programs are also meeting the needs of students.

“It’s all about the kids and their success in the real world. They’re the future of industry. If they get good industry skills standard training, they’re going to go out there and pick up whatever else they need,” he said.

He said the industry gives the school and the state plenty of feedback about what it wants in its graduates. “Our curriculum gets updated by industry itself,” he said.

Another way schools such as Aviation High School help the industry is by providing an inexpensive way for students to get their training in an industry that puts a big price tag on its degrees and technical certificates.

Robert Owen, chairman of the aeronautical science department for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which calls itself the world’s largest, fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, said a high school in north Florida approached the university about offering the same training to high-school-age students.

The new two-year program at Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., opened to all high school juniors and seniors in the district last fall. The students must have a teacher recommendation and a GPA of at least 2.5 to get into the program.

The program offers a number of tracks to get students started on their college degrees “for free.” Owen estimated that the young people, and their parents, will save between $25,000 and $35,000 on their aviation education if they take their credits to Embry-Riddle or another college, where they will enter as sophomores instead of freshmen.

“As airlines pay their pilots less, we have to address the cost of their education. This is a way to make a major dent in that cost,” Owen said. He adds that the high school program also provides the benefit of another two years of indoctrinating potential aviation employees to help them get acclimated socially, culturally and ethically to the industry.

Students at Choctawhatchee can pick a general aviation track and take courses in air traffic management and applied meteorology. Students who elect to follow the aviation maintenance technology track work toward a certificate in aircraft maintenance. The flight track is for students who want to become professional pilots.

Owen said the school district hopes eventually to offer the aviation institute to about 250 students–100 students enrolled for the first year–and he would be thrilled to have 10 or 20 of them go on to Embry-Riddle to finish their degrees. His long-term goal is to set up similar programs across the country working with a dozen or more school districts within the next five years.

To work with Embry-Riddle to set up a similar program, a school district would need to provide classroom space and a population of students who are really interested in the aviation field and have the money to support the program. Owen said he expected the project would be most successful in cities where a major airline is based and perhaps where some segment of the aviation industry has a foothold.

An Aviation Magnet School

Several other school districts around the U.S. offer technical or practical education for students interested in the aviation industry, including aviation institutes in Minneapolis and Newport News, Va., but another new program has taken an entirely different approach.

Highline Public Schools in Washington state is working with several local community colleges to offer a region-wide magnet school for students interested in the field of aviation. The school, located at Boeing Field, is devoted to studies concerning flight, but is not a trade school and hopes to attract students with the way it integrates aviation into its math, science, English and social studies curricula.

Principal Reba Gilman said the program is academically challenging for the 105 students enrolled in the school’s first freshman class. “This is a college prep high school that is using aviation and aerospace as a context for learning,” Gilman explained. “I would describe it as a school of science, math and technology. Aviation is the application.”

In addition to the usual high school core classes, all students are required to participate in a series of seminars on topics related to the aviation industry. These will give them a base of understanding about aviation and aeronautics and enable them to earn some college credit while attending high school.

The first seminar for ninth graders was a class on aviation law, where students investigated an aviation disaster and did a mock trial.

Their second seminar, taught by certified community college instructors, was “ground school,” where students earned five college credits learning about meteorology, navigation, geography, aircraft identification and other things they need to know before learning to fly an airplane.

Gilman said many students will go on to flight school, but that path is not required. “Whether they go on or not, ground school is a good preparation for students to understand all the physics of flight and what you need to know to navigate the skies,” she said.

The third seminar is history of aircraft design, which will be taught using the nearby Museum of Flight, which has dedicated a classroom for Aviation High School use.

The fourth is “mission ready health and fitness,” an example of how the school will take the aviation theme into every facet of its curriculum. Gilman said students will investigate the fitness requirements of their desired career and create a personal plan for reaching those standards.

Although the school will not offer a technical education track, students who are interested in learning about aircraft maintenance may choose to take the college courses in this subject during their junior and senior years. Those who want to learn to fly can also take the courses required for a pilot certificate. But the focus of Washington’s new Aviation High School is on academic learning, not technical education. “We want a well educated, not just well trained, work force,” Gilman said. “A student today who is a…mechanic has got to be good at math and good at problem solving and analyzing data.”

Gilman said that California has plans to open a school with a similar approach in Oakland, Calif., next year. Both the Oakland program and the one at Boeing Field recognize the need to inspire young people and maintain their interest.

“We have an appalling drop-out rate in our school district,” she noted, both among students who don’t see the relevance of their learning to the real world and among those who are exceedingly bright and disconnected from their ordinary high school coursework. Gilman said she hopes both kinds of student will get engaged and stay that way at Aviation High School.

“Our students are building a kit airplane this year. They’re applying science and math and making forecasts about how unexpected events would affect the safety and performance of the aircraft. That’s a different kind of learning style,” she said.