High School Aviation Endures Bumpy Ride

HIGH POINT — Aspiring engineer Mrwan Othman nearly gave up on the Andrews Aviation Academy.

“I was going to drop off,” said Othman, a junior from Jamestown. “I was going to go back to Ragsdale (High) because the program was so focused on pilots. It didn’t have what I was looking for.”

He and other dissatisfied students met with new academy director Cynthia Waters and convinced her to add courses for those who want to design, outfit and repair airplanes. Waters realized the program could not meet the growing regional demand for those workers unless it shifted its emphasis from preparing students to fly them.

“I don’t take their concerns lightly and I try to meet their needs,” said Waters, who was hired a year ago “This is their life we are talking about.”

The academy, which will graduate its first students this spring, has come a long way since opening four years ago. Its first apprenticeship program could begin this fall. Waters hopes to triple the number of students taking college courses at GTCC next year.

But the academy has fewer students than projected and a bare-bones budget. Waters said she will need more money next year to keep the program on track.

“The kids are so interested in this aviation program that to let it die would dash the hopes and dreams of so many students,” she said.

Guilford County Schools Superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green said his staff will work to find more money for the academy.

“Our intention is to continue the program at Andrews High School,” he said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to make that happen.”

The aviation academy, like many of the district’s magnet schools, was former Superintendent Terry Grier’s idea. He envisioned a program that would give high school students a jump start on a well-paying career at TIMCO Aviation Services, Honda Aircraft, and other companies, and an opportunity to earn college credit.

The district funded the academy with a three-year federal grant and planned for an enrollment of 400 students. But only 130 students attend and the federal money has run out. The budget shrank from $373,000 in federal money in 2009-10 to $87,000 — with $1,900 in local money — this year.

“When the money was there they didn’t have the organization in place,” said Audrey Floyd, chairwoman of GTCC’s aviation department. “Now that the organization is in place, the money is not. (Waters) has a tough job for sure.”

Waters said she is optimistic that the Board of Education will increase the academy’s funding by about $50,000 next year to pay for trips, college courses, equipment and supplies.

Fifteen students might enroll in college courses next year compared to five this year, she said.

“They are going to have to step it up,” Waters said of school leaders. “I have way too many irons in the fire for them not to fund them.”

Waters, a licensed pilot who formerly taught math and science in Virginia, said the academy once lacked high academic standards and variety of classes. She rewrote the curriculum, taught classes, bought new equipment, and removed students with poor grades and behavior.

“What I’m trying to do is build a school within a school so we have an entire wing of aviation students,” she said. “But I want focused aviation students. I don’t want students who are just here to get a laptop or other perks. And I want to provide a pipeline to the community of workers who are willing, knowledgeable and have good character.”

Waters wants to add 400 students and a fourth career track for those interested in customer service and other nontechnical fields. TIMCO recently offered to train a handful of students in aircraft maintenance next year.

“As a company, we probably haven’t focused on it enough but we hope to do more so going forward,” said Kip Blakely, TIMCO’s vice president of industry and government relations.

“We’re willing to make the investment and plant the seeds so that there is a job opportunity for these students in aviation.”

Othman and Charlie Davis, both juniors, said they look forward to working at TIMCO and taking college courses in their last year in the academy.

“You can’t ask for more than that — going to school and working at the same time,” Othman said. “That’s a bonus.”

Other students said they appreciated the program changes. Freshman Hannah Wade committed to attending the academy after Waters added a pre-engineering track.

“There’s not much I don’t like so far,” Wade said. “I’m looking forward to taking other classes.”

Junior Kevin Beugger and senior Carson Wofford were the academy’s first students to earn their private pilot’s license last year. The district doesn’t pay for that perk because of liability concerns, so the two students’ families each spent more than $10,000 on the flight lessons.

“I still would have gone either way because it’s a good program,” Beugger said. “You can still take those classes and you can still earn the college credit if you’re going to GTCC.”

Still, some people worry the district will neglect the academy and other magnet programs in the rush to open new schools. Ed Price, a school board member from High Point, wondered why the aviation academy lacked a job-training component for so long when TIMCO committed to spending $100,000 on such a program for a new early college scheduled to open this fall.

“I don’t want (district leaders) to forget what we’ve got and put Andrews on the back burner,” Price said. “I just don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle.”

Contact Morgan Josey Glover at 373-7078, or morgan.josey@news-record.com