Keith Smith recruits students for the Central Florida Aerospace Academy on the SUN ‘n FUN campus at Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport in Florida with an unusual opening question: “I ask what are you going to be doing when you’re 26 years old?”
According to Smith, the chief administrator at CFAA, that question provokes a lot of responses from middle schoolers.
“They tell me I want to be a football player or a dancer or whatever. I also ask how many of them don’t know what they want to do and how many are considering aviation,” he said. “What I find is that the students don’t have a clue as to what is being offered in aviation.”
Smith uses his visits with Polk County students to describe the advantages offered by studying at CFAA.“Any student in the county can attend,” Smith said. “And during SUN ‘n FUN I put together an activity day for four of our biggest feeder schools. We show them what is at the school, what we do.”
CFAA students study in one of four tracks.
“Engineering and aerospace are our two biggest tracks,” Smith explained. “I would say in numbers we are probably about 40% aerospace, 30% engineering, 20% avionics and 10% Airframe and Powerplant.”
Smith, who was a businessman before beginning a second career as a teacher and school administrator, is particularly effective in outlining the merits of studying at CFAA.
“We have math, social studies, science, English and language arts,” he said. “And on top of the four core subjects, we offer Spanish and Air Force Junior ROTC. We have the same clubs that Kathleen High offers. And we have the Lakeland Aero Club, a high school flying club in which nearly 100 of our students have soloed during the past five years.”
Smith’s recruiting success over the past five years shows up in the enrollment numbers.
“When I got here there was about 150 kids and we had 12 females,” Smith said. “I had about three African Americans. We are still a long way from where we want to be, but we are now close to 80 to 100 females. And I’ve got about 25% female, about 9% African American, and 25% Hispanics. We are recruiting and it is paying off.”
Current enrollment is 340 students, according to Smith.
“The maximum number of people we can have in the building is 499 people,” said Smith, who runs CFAA as the sole administrator. The school has 23 teachers.
“All students have to do is show an interest in coming here and basically have graduated the 8th grade,” Smith said. “We require that they maintain a 2.5 grade point ratio and they have to get the certification in their track.”
The education choices of last year’s graduating class of 45 students provides an example of the impact of aerospace education, Smith said.
“About 50% of the class started out pursuing something in aviation,” he said. “We had two who came back and started the A&P adult program. Three went to Embry Riddle and another 10 or 15 went to Polk State. I would feel very safe in saying about 50% are involved in aviation study.”
“The school is such a great opportunity for kids,” he continued. “I see it every year, watching them become men and women. I can’t imagine another position that I would enjoy more than this. It is great to get up and go to work each day.”