New aviation charter school aims to diversify the cockpit
A handful of small planes line the runway on a windy day at Bessemer Airport and if you look out the windows you’ll see high school kids in the cockpit. For students like Finn Payne, it’s the first time they’ve flown.
“Since I joined this school, it’s only been four weeks and I’m already here preparing to fly a plane,” said the second.
Finn and about 150 teenagers are part of the first class of students from across the country at the new Alabama Aerospace and Aviation High School. The mission of the public charter school is to prepare more underrepresented students for careers in aviation and aerospace and the first step is to get students off the ground.
So, a month into the school year, the school organized an aerial event for students to have the chance to co-pilot a small plane. Ninth-grader Dorian Gonzalez said he was already considering flying for the Air Force.
“In my 14 years of life, I’ve only flown twice,” Dorian said. “It’s really hard to realize for the first time that you’re actually up there. You’re about a thousand feet in the air at about 60 knots and it’s truly mind-blowing what you can do.
The century-old high school building is laid out like an airport where classrooms are gates and lobbies are terminals. The school colors are perfectly sky blue, and the program is also supported by Delta Airlines Tech Ops, Auburn University, and Tuskegee University. Founder Ruben Morris said every detail of the school is aimed at preparing students for future jobs in aviation and aerospace.
“There will be 23,000 pilot openings globally in 2023, and that’s only going to increase exponentially,” Morris said.
Morris said he wants the school to cite “disrupting” the industry by giving marginalized students the tools to succeed and diversify the cockpit. He said this goal is shared by their local and national partners and it is because of two issues facing the aviation industry.
Since the start of the pandemic, the industry has lost two million workers and those who remain are overwhelmingly white.
“When you hear about flying, you hear about the Wright Brothers and, you know, maybe the Tuskegee Airmen,” Morris said.
According to a 2020 survey by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 94% of aviation professionals in the country are white.
“I didn’t meet a colored driver until I was over 30,” Morris said. “I haven’t met a black driver in person yet. We need to change that.
At Alabama Aerospace and Aviation High School, the majority of students are students of color, and more than 70 percent are eligible for free and discounted lunch. Morris said preparing students for jobs also helps those students create wealth in the community after graduation.
“That’s what I would describe as a generational impact,” he said. “And what I mean by that is you can’t be what you can’t see.”
During the fly-in, Tamara Canty watched the students boarding the planes in awe. She has a son in grade 9, but she was excited to talk to some of the girls.
“I thought it was so awesome to see our young brunette girls,” Canty said. “Let them see themselves doing this. It’s the impact that a day like this has on them. Getting on a plane and flying and getting your hands on the dashboard is priceless.
After graduating, students can obtain a private pilot license and start a career with aircraft maintenance and engineering certifications. The students say they are already considering flying for the Air Force or for commercial airlines.
The school’s motto is “SOAR”, which stands for scholarship, optimism, responsibility and respect. Founder Ruben Morris said these values underpin all learning and activity, so students can keep flying high.
Kyra Miles is a member of the Report for America body covering education or WBHM.