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An Aviation High School Lands Its Own Hangar on Campus

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By guest blogger Francisco Vara-Orta 

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It's not completely unheard of to have aviation science programs in high schools, but they often require students to travel a nearby airport to work in a hangar. But students at Sterling Aviation High School in Houston don't have to worry anymore about stepping off campus grounds to get that kind of hands-on experience.

Last month, the Houston Independent School District unveiled Sterling Aviation High's 7,100-square-foot, two-story hangar, leaving students, instructors, and its principal Justin Fuentes feeling sky high about the future of their program. Two small single-propeller planes can fit inside the hangar along with 17 aircraft engines that students can tinker with for hands-on learning.

The hangar is the crown jewel in the massive rebuilding of its longtime Sterling High campus, originally built in 1965, according to Houston ISD officials. The new campus is a $72 million, 237,000-square-foot school and can accommodate up to 2,000 students, Fuentes said.

About 150 students are enrolled in the aviation school on-site, where the program also allows students to get credits toward a pilot's license. Students have to pass a written exam from the Federal Aviation Administration before being allowed to take their flight test, and can't start that process until their junior year, Fuentes explained.

Slightly more than two thirds of Sterling's campus is classified by the state as economically disadvantaged, and the school serves a predominately black and Latino student population. Sterling is also the first new comprehensive high school complex to be built (or rebuilt, for that matter) in the Houston district in roughly 16 years, Houston ISD officials stated.

Aviation programs have operated in schools over the years throughout the nation. Most do tend to partner with a nearby airport for the hands-on lab.

Such programs are marketed as a stable career avenue that should appeal to any socioeconomic bracket, from lower-income schools with higher proportions of students of color to those in more tony, white communities.

Houston ISD officials in 2014 touted the story of one student who gained his license on the way to the U.S. Naval Academy, with career aspirations of becoming a military pilot. Meanwhile, in the Seattle area, Raisbeck Aviation High School, a public, 13-year-old program, has refashioned its recruitment efforts into a lottery system to resolve inequities along gender and racial lines as the program had long been serving a mostly white male student population.

Another aviation program in recent months has attracted some attention as education policymakers attempt to search for any tea leaves portending what incoming U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would champion.

Her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., founded the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school, in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2010. West Michigan Aviation Academy enrolls just under 550 students, 38 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged, according to state data. Fifteen percent of students at the school are African-American, 16 percent are Latino, and 61 percent are white, which is a fairly diverse student body for a charter school, Education Week recently reported.

Back in Houston, Fuentes in a phone interview said his district's facility also includes an observation deck on the third floor where students can view the airport traffic control tower at Houston's William P. Hobby Airport, which is just miles away from the campus.

"It's nice because we can watch planes take off and arrive to the airport," Fuentes said. "It reminds students of the bigger picture and that the sky's the limit."

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Photos courtesy Justin Fuentes/Houston ISD

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