By Wayne Dominick
School board members often talk metaphorically about students soaring to new heights. Monroe County board members are giving students the opportunity to make it a reality.
The students are enrolled in Monroe County High School’s aviation and aviation maintenance courses, offered through a partnership with Missionaire International, which rebuilds and services airplanes for bush pilots doing missionary work around the world.
When Missionaire was looking to relocate around four years ago, founder and CEO Jon Foote had a list of things he was looking for in a new home for the organization. In addition to location and adequate airport facilities, Foote was looking for community support, especially from the school system.
“I couldn’t believe it when the first place the committee took me to on the tour of the community was the high school,” he said.
Once he decided on Monroe County, Foote returned to the schools with what Superintendent Lewis Carter described as “an offer we couldn’t refuse.”
Photo: Sophomore Philip Stout points out the work he did to modify the dashboard on the plane his class refurbished last year. 2010-2011 was the first year of aviation classes at Monroe County High School.
Foote proposed starting a program that would give high school students the opportunity to learn the basics of aviation history and theory, while at the same time getting hands-on experience learning airplane mechanics and maintenance.
The goal: at the end of four years in the program, students would be ready, with just a little additional schooling, to become certified aviation mechanics. They also would have the majority of classwork needed to obtain a pilot’s license.
The offer they couldn’t refuse sounded like an ‘offer too good to be true’ when School Board Chairman Dr. Michael Carter first heard it.
“I guess it’s our job as school board members to be a little skeptical and look for the things that might go wrong when we hear about new programs,” he said.
“I give these guys a lot of credit,” he said, referring to (Superintendent) Carter and Foote. “They did their homework and came to us with answers to all our questions.”
Board member Todd Burgess was concerned about funding for the program, which required flight simulators and computers, but once again, Carter and Foote had that covered.
“They had it pretty much paid for with grants and help from the community. The only expense we had was transportation to and from the airport. I figured that’s a small price to pay for an opportunity like this for our kids,” Burgess said.
Students also work on one of Missionaire’s retired planes.
“For the past couple of years we’ve been hearing a lot about making sure our kids are college- and career-ready,” said board member Eddie Proffitt. “This seems like a perfect program to do that.”
The biggest obstacle to implementing the program was making sure it aligned with the curriculum. Secondary Instruction Supervisor Amy Thompson said she was concerned about how it would fit in with the state’s new standards.
But when she compared the aviation course with integrated science, she said, “I found that the kids taking aviation were actually getting more math and science than those in integrated science.”
“We don’t tell the kids that,” joked Carter. “We let them think they’re just learning about planes and flying. We sneak that science in on them.”
Students are selected for the program based on test scores, grades and attendance, said Ronda Jordan-Elam, the district’s 21st Century Learning Center coordinator. “When I went to the middle school to see who would like to take the course, a lot of hands went up,” she said.
Due to computer and space limitations, the course can accommodate only a small number of students. “We had to limit the first class (2010-11) to 14 students,” Elam said. “If the class was any bigger, students wouldn’t get enough time on the flight simulators or in the shop to get enough experience.”
Of the 14 students who took the class last year, 12 are back for a second year. The course attracted a variety of students, ranging from those who see themselves pursuing a career in aviation to those who just wanted to learn more about flying.
Sophomore Takeisha Blankenship, now in her second year of aviation, said she was attracted to the hands-on aspect of the course.
“It’s different from other courses because you get to do more. It’s not just sitting at your desk listening to the teacher or reading from a book. You’re applying what you learn,” she said.
Freshman Briley Cooper said although he doesn’t intend to go into aviation, he sees the course helping meet his goal of becoming an architect.
“I think a lot of the science I learn here will help me later on,” he said. “Plus, it would be kind of neat to get a pilot’s license someday.”
Sophomore Philip Stout said he has no plans to get up in the air, but would like to pursue a mechanic’s certification. He had only one complaint about the aviation program: “The class is too short. We need more time so we can do more.”
— Dominick is a writer from Frankfort