Reading, writing and wrenching at NY’s Aviation High School

Did you know what career you wanted when you were 14 years old? Students at Aviation High School in New York know.

By the time they are sophomores, most are well on their way to FAA certification as airframe and powerplant technicians. At the same time, they are earning their high school diplomas.

“Some even take Advanced Placement courses, which allow them to earn college credit while still in high school,” notes principal Eileen Taylor.

The school, believed to be the oldest aviation high school in the United States, traces its roots to a continuation school established in the 1920s in Manhattan. The school was created for kids who were forced to leave school early to enter the workforce.

“It was during the Depression when these kids were coming of age,” Taylor says. “A lot of them dropped out of school to go to work to help their families, but the state of New York mandated that they had to reach a certain level of skill in math and English, so the school was created. Many of the kids attended classes just once a week and worked the other four.”

As World War II approached, it became clear that America would soon need aircraft mechanics. The school developed the aviation vocational program and began to turn out skilled technicians. In 1957 the school was moved from Manhattan to Queens and both its vocational and academic programs continued to evolve. In 2000 the school opened an annex at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

In addition to taking courses that you find in most high schools, such as math, social studies, languages and history, students have the opportunity to work on 17 airplanes, including a 737 donated to the school by FedEx in 2003.

“It’s our classroom with wings,” Taylor says. “We are the only aviation high school in the country with an annex at an international airport.”

Competition to get into the school is fierce. “Getting in is not easy,” she says. “In addition to reaching a certain academic level, applicants need to have a good attendance record as well as a strong desire to attend the school. We have to be their No. 1 pick.”

Students are not eligible to apply after the 10th grade because they won’t have enough academic hours to earn their FAA certificates. In all, students have 1,900 hours of aviation-related instruction at a Part 147 FAA-approved facility in addition to college prep academics.

The school has a good relationship with key players in the aviation industry, notes Giovanni Sosa, one of two assistant principals. “We have partnerships with several airlines, such as JetBlue, Delta, Polar Air Cargo and FedEx, as well as general aviation outfits in the area where the kids can take advantage of apprentice and internship programs.

All the kids who are at the annex are in internships. They attend classes in the morning and then go to airlines where they work for three or four hours in the afternoon.”

Although the school focuses on aviation, other aspects, such as sports, are embraced as well.

“We are in the state finals for soccer!” says Mario Cotumaccio, an assistant vice principal who doubles as the soccer coach. “We have all the major sports and the kids take part in them, although it means additional work and travel for them. For example, we have to travel a half an hour to our soccer field to practice.”

Travel is routine for the students, many of whom commute up to 90 minutes one way to get to school, using buses, trains and ferries. “Some of them don’t get home until 8 p.m. if they are playing a team sport,” he says.

The days are long even for students not involved in sports. “A typical day has the student arriving at 7:15 a.m.,” Sosa says. “They get 45 minutes for lunch and don’t leave until 4:15 p.m.”

The dedication pays off. Taylor says it is a point of pride that 10% of the aviation mechanics in the field today are from New York Aviation High School. “And 85% of our graduates go on to college,” she notes.

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