(June 2011) It makes me want to go back to high school,” I confessed to Patrick J. Cwayna Sr., CEO of the West Michigan Aviation Academy (WMAA). His response wasn’t surprising. “I hear that a lot,” he said. “Many of the students’ parents tell me that; they really recognize the value of what we’re offering the students.”
High school has changed a great deal since I was a student. Soccer has become a popular sport; personal computers hadn’t yet been invented; and cell phones and texting were the things of science fiction. Although we had some “commercial classes” (auto shop, cosmetology, wood shop, print shop, etc.), the idea that a public high school might be devoted to preparing students for a variety of careers in a single industry wasn’t on the educational horizon.
West Michigan Aviation Academy may be unique. It bills itself as the “only aviation-focused charter high school in the nation” and boasts proudly that, while other high schools have football fields, it has access to hangars, runways and airplanes; it has no athletic teams; and, instead, it focuses solely on preparing its students for the world beyond high school.
The school, which first opened its doors to a class of 80 freshmen on Sept. 7, 2010, began to accept applications for this year’s fall school term earlier this spring. The current class of freshmen (class of 2014) will move up to sophomores, and when the class of 2017 enters in the fall of 2013, the school will be at its intended capacity of approximately 320 students.
Based at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, the West Michigan Aviation Academy offers all the classes required of any Michigan state-approved high school. English, biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, civics, world history and geography are just some of the classes the school offers in addition to its aviation requirements and electives.
Students at WMAA can choose from three educational paths: aviation flight, aviation business administration and aviation mechanics. According to the school, the skills learned in these tracks can be applied to various fields in aviation as well in other industries.
As a charter school, WMAA receives public funds, so it’s not permitted to charge tuition. And since it is a charter school, any student who resides in Michigan is eligible to apply. “It’s open to any and all who want to come here,” Cwayna said. Although enrollment is open to anyone in the state, he acknowledged that logistics would be a problem for students not living or staying within commuting distance of the school.
Each class is limited in size to 80 students, but if there are more than 80 applicants by the time the open enrollment period expires, a random lottery is held to determine which applicants may attend. “That way, there’s no favoritism,” Cwayna explained, “although there is preference given to the sibling of a student already attending.”
If there are not 80 applicants by the end of the initial enrollment period, which for this fall’s class was in February, then the enrollment period is kept open until the class is filled. According to Cwayna, by mid-April the school had logged a total of 69 students for the freshman class and will continue to accept applicants through the summer for the remaining 11 positions.
Cwayna admitted there has been some attrition from the freshman class “for one reason or another.” Ten students from the original 80 have dropped out, but three others have since enrolled, so the net strength of the freshman class is at 73. Of the initial freshman class of 80, 11 were young women.
Cwayna said, “Considering we’re a new school, we’ve done a very fine job in this first year.”
While the school is adjusting, so too are its students. Although many enter planning to become commercial airline pilots, they’re still exploring their career options, he said. “The first year there’s an Introduction to Aviation course that covers all three career areas: flight, mechanics and aviation business administration. In the second year they’ll have a two-hour block of A&P and work on an airplane in the hangar and take another course in robotics.”
Keith Sutherland, the school’s aviation instructor, has been tasked with exploring community resources to support the flight program. Initially, Sutherland said, while developing funding the school is setting up an extracurricular program through the School of Aviation at Western Michigan University. Students at WMAA will be able to take advantage of the university’s fleet of Cirrus SR20 aircraft and instructors. “The plan is for students who meet the GPA requirements to get to fly during the summer of their junior year when they can solo as 16-year-olds. It’ll be an incentive for them to keep up their grades.”
Cwayna said the idea for the school was the brainchild of Dick DeVos, son of the co-founder of Amway. “He’s always been an advocate for education in the state of Michigan and a proponent of educational options and as a pilot has a love of aviation. He’s been very gracious and generous toward the school.”
In addition to the support from DeVos, Western Michigan University has donated a Cirrus SR20 flight simulator to the school and a member of its faculty is helping to develop the curriculum. Cwayna said that the school is very well equipped with furniture and classroom technology provided by Steelcase, and GE Aviation has agreed to provide mentoring and tutoring for the students.
“Our mission,” Cwayna said, “is to teach our students, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and socioeconomic conditions, right from wrong and to give them a foundation in good character. We want to blend them here and give them an opportunity they might not be able to get anywhere else.”
It’s going to be interesting to see how the West Michigan Aviation Academy continues to develop and whether it becomes a role model for other charter high schools around the country. For students who know they want to be involved in some facet of the aviation industry, the school should give them an excellent foundation on which to grow and succeed.