Officials from Sun ‘n Fun and the Polk County School Board broke ground Thursday on a new $7.5 million building that will house the Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA), an aviation-oriented career academy that is already located on the Sun ‘n Fun campus.
The new 58,000-square-foot facility, which will house up to 500 high school students, is slated to open in August 2011.
The building is made possible by a $7.5 million grant from the Aviation Education Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by James Ray, a pilot with 70 years of flying experience, and a successful businessman with interests in ranching, oil and gas exploration, real estate development, and investing. A B-17 pilot during World War II, Ray has provided the start-up funding for more than 300 businesses, including Eclipse Aviation and Cirrus Design. He’s also made significant donations to the University of North Dakota, EAA, and the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Ray is donating another $500,000 to the local school district for furniture, fixtures and equipment for the new building.
“It is my belief that teaching young people the discipline required to learn the science of flight builds character and confidence,” Ray said. “The experience of solo flight teaches them that they are independent and free-thinking individuals who are fully capable of being in control of their own lives.”
In presenting the check to Sun ‘n Fun officials, Ray noted it is “really a baton on the starting line, which is going to be slip into little relay batons, given to the construction companies and the teachers and all you young guys,” he said, talking to the many students present for the groundbreaking. “The only reward we want is the success of each of you.”
Yesterday’s presentation was especially poignant for Rick Garcia, president of Gulf Coast Avionics and a Sun ‘n Fun board member, who initially proposed the idea of building a high school on the Sun ‘n Fun campus.
“When I was 14 I got involved in aviation at a similar academy in Miami,” he said, “and I had a dream, like Mr. Ray, that giving these young people the opportunity to experience flight can ignite the passion and confidence within each one of them to change their life. Thank you Mr. Ray.”
Garcia presented Ray with a rendering of the school, then Bill Eickhoff, Sun ‘n Fun chairman, noted it was “time to get this started,” as he, Garcia, Ray, Sun ‘n Fun President John Burton, Dr. Gail McKinzie, superintendent of the Polk County School Board, and Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, broke ground for the new school.
The current CFAA facilities, which are in their second year of operation, house 115 sophomores and juniors. “The new academy will allow us to almost triple the enrollment,” said Assistant Principal Chad Smith. He noted that students who attend the academy have improved attendance and academic performance. “Students who come to school here don’t want to leave at the end of the day,” he said.