Last week I attended a Focus on Education Breakfast held in the student center at Polk State College’s main campus in Winter Haven, Florida. On hand were members of the school board, administrators from the county’s school system, teachers, principals, politicians, community activists, and a smattering of students.
The whole crew was gathered for a dual purpose: To take a peek at what’s good about the educational options currently available in Polk County, and to consider how that system of alternatives might be made better.
John Small, the assistant superintendent of Polk County schools, brought up a topic that’s rarely heard in this sort of gathering. And frankly I think it went over the heads of most in the room. But he said it, and that’s progress. The assistant superintendent talked specifically about aviation as a career.
Small called out Lites Leenhouts and his staff at SUN ‘n FUN, congratulating them for the shining example provided by the Central Florida Aerospace Academy. This public high school sits on the grounds of SUN ‘n FUN, providing a well-rounded education to the nearly 300 students who attend, all of whom experience a special emphasis on aviation during their high school experience.
These students don’t merely focus on the theoretical, they get personally involved in the aspects of aviation that interest them most. In addition to the original avionics program the school started with, there are now maintenance programs that lead to A&P certificates, an engineering track, and a pilot program that has been successful at transforming young men and women into private pilots.
As he talked about these successes, Small made an interesting comment about the dilemma of preparing students for careers that will suit them in adulthood. He shared this: When students are queried about what they want to be when they grow up, the most common answers are cop, firefighter, orthodontist, and veterinarian.
Those are some worthy careers, certainly, but when we look a bit deeper, the reason students routinely provide those answer is troubling. It’s because those are the careers they’ve been exposed to.
They’ve seen police in their schools. They’ve had representatives of the local fire department come talk to their classes about fire safety. They’ve taken Mittens to the vet with their folks, and they’ve had braces on their teeth at some point. That’s about it for career exposure when you’re 15 years old.
How can a student make an educated decision about what he or she wants to be when they grow up if we don’t make a serious attempt to share the available options with them?
One of the high schools included in the Education Breakfast program keeps a list of potential mentors. When one of their students mentioned they were thinking of becoming a pilot, I got an email asking if I could meet and share some insight. That’s how I came to be sitting in my flying club’s hangar this past Saturday with a 17-year-old girl and her step-dad, talking about flying as a career.
Eirlys (Eye-er-lease) has never driven a car, but she’s pretty sure she wants to live a life filled with adventure and intellectual challenges that will keep her on her toes. She’s in the Cambridge program for high-achievers at her school, and she’s finding herself drawn to aviation. She wants to be a pilot.
I let her climb into the Cub, then take the left seat in the C-172. We talked about how different they are, and how similar they are. We talked about continuing education, medical exams, written tests, practical tests, remedial training, currency, and all sorts of things that came across her mind or mine. Then came the big question. “Have you ever flown an airplane?”
“No,” she answered. “I’ve been in an airplane, but I’ve never flown one.”
“Would you like to?”
I don’t think this possibility had even crossed her mind. I’m fairly certain her step-dad had never considered it either. But her answer was emphatic, her step-dad was agreeable, and so we found ourselves sauntering over to another hangar where one of the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association’s Reimagined C-152s sat all ready and willing to go. I talked her through the pre-flight inspection and showed her how to buckle and unbuckle her seat belt. She tied into the shoulder strap, and we ran through the checklist.
Eirlys followed me through on the controls as we taxied. Because she’s never driven a car, she didn’t have the impulse to control turns with the yoke as most students do. Her brain was a squeaky clean fully open sponge of information gathering power. She did tremendously well. Her hands and feet were on the controls as we rolled down the runway. She felt the airplane leave the ground, she held the nose skyward as we climbed out, and she worked with me to make a beautiful climbing turn to the left as we exited the pattern.
We flew to the north, then the south. We flew over her house. I loaned her my phone so she could take a picture as we soared overhead. She held the controls lightly, experimenting with what a little pressure this way or that could do. She flew very well.
Maybe Eirlys will become a pilot one day. Maybe she won’t. Either way, I know this: There is a high-achieving student at the local high school who is telling her friends what it’s like to fly an airplane, and they’re listening.
I tally that as a big ol’ win in my book — for all of us.