By J. Bryan Ewing
GREENSBORO, NC – High school graduates across the country will be told the sky’s the limit this spring but for 23 students in North Carolina it’s quite literal. The Andrews Aviation Academy in High Point will hand out diplomas to its first graduating class on June 9. Several are heading off to college to continue their aviation education, several others have plans to take to the skies with branches of the military and still others are looking to start their aviation careers.
“The Aviation Academy just offers so many opportunities that wouldn’t have been available to me,” said Colin Gunenwald who plans to become a pilot. “I’m a different person because of what I’ve done here.”
Opened in 2008 at Andrews High School, Guilford County Schools developed the Aviation Academy as a high school magnet program in an effort to promote STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), as well as capitalize on the aviation industry growing in the area. HondaJet opened its first-ever manufacturing facility in Greensboro last year, FedEx is completing one of its largest cargo hubs in the country at Piedmont Triad International Airport and TIMCO Aviation Services has been headquartered in the area for more than 20 years.
The school district is looking to partner with those aviation industry leaders as well, giving the companies a chance to help educate their future workforce.
TIMCO proudly announced this year that Aviation Academy students will begin internships with the company this summer. Kip Blakely, TIMCO vice president of Industry and Government Relations, applauded Guilford County Schools for its initiative, saying partnerships between industry and public schools make communities more competitive in economic development.
“We are very excited about Andrews Aviation Academy,” Blakely said. “The aviation companies and the advanced manufacturing companies in the area are having a very hard time filling all of our positions so we are very supportive of any effort that gets our young people interested in and trained for those jobs.”
Students can follow one of four career tracks at the Academy – Pilot, Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic, Avionics Technician, and Aerospace Engineer – and the program will add another track focused on customer service and other nontechnical areas this fall.
The school district also teamed with Guilford Technical Community College to offer students up to 36 hours of college credit for free. Students studying mechanics and avionics take classes at GTCC full time during their senior year as part of a two-year program, which gives them access to all the equipment normally used by aviation mechanics and technicians.
The engineering students will be training on programs such as Solid Works and Auto-Cad, as well as learn basic wiring, how to read schematics and blueprints, using tools, assembly, and safety in manufacturing and maintenance.
And for the Goose and Mavericks among them, future pilots train on an FAA-approved flight simulator on campus with yoke and rudder pedals, logging real airplane time in their pilot logbooks. One senior, Carson Wofford, even earned his pilot’s license. Cynthia Waters, the academy’s director, believes in order for the program to be worth the effort and cost, it has to provide students with an experience that parallels one they would receive in college or through a flight training school.
“This program isn’t about impressing people on paper,” Waters said. “It’s about offering students genuine opportunity to do something with their life. If you’re going to ask the best of them you have to provide the best for them.”
Waters should know. Along with being a former math and science teacher, she is also a licensed commercial pilot and flight instructor. She’s helped rewrite the academy’s curriculum and is broadening the program with efforts such as the TIMCO partnership. All of that work earned her NASA’s 2012 Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award.
Waters believes these first graduates exemplify the quality of student the academy is capable of producing.
“These graduates are some of the brightest, hardest working students you will find,” Waters said. “Their drive and their sense of wonder was always there, but it takes a program like the Aviation Academy, one that engages students in ways that matter to them, to provide a stage to showcase that talent.”
Waters wants to increase enrollment over the next few years and build additional partnerships with area industries.
Academy students are happy to talk about the job opportunities and advance coursework their school offers them, but these future engineers, airframe and powerplant mechanics, avionics technicians, and pilots really light up when they talk about how different their high school experience has been from that of their friends.
“We don’t have to wait for college or to be out of high school to learn about what we want to do for the rest of our lives,” said Chris Shoffner, who has been in the program since he was a ninth grader. “Everybody should have a chance to go to a high school like this.”