By Monica Scott
November 30, 2011
GRAND RAPIDS — The aviation-themed charter high school launched by businessman Dick DeVos in 2010 is planning for a $4 million to $5 million expansion to accommodate growth.
The West Michigan Aviation Academy, located on the Gerald R. Ford International Airport at 5363 44th St. SE, is carving out a niche in public school education.
The school began with 80 freshmen – 20 more than projected – with the goal of adding a grade each year. Today, it has 145 students but needs more space for next year’s junior class and future seniors. The expansion will allow them to accommodate 600 students.
“We are determined to have a rigorous, college prep high school with this aviation theme,” said Patrick J. Cwayna Sr., CEO of the academy, about what’s attracting students across West Michigan. “Students and families are also attracted to the smaller school environment. We are also intentional about having a diverse student body.”
The school is drawing students from more than 30 school districts from Belding to Zeeland. But about half are coming from Grand Rapids, Caledonia and Kentwood.
Plans are for the current 25,000-square-foot building to connect to a new, two-story, 46,000-square-foot building that would include a gym, additional classrooms and commons area.
However, before construction can begin next year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Kent County Aeronautics Board and charter sponsor, Bay Mills Community College, must grant approval. Last month, the FAA signed off on the first of a two-part approval process.
Students take traditional courses as well as aviation classes such as Introduction to Aviation, robotics and airplane maintenance. Cwayna said the school is open to all interested and is in session from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., an hour longer then most high schools.
Everyone there doesn’t want to be a pilot. There are those eager to get in the air but others are interested in the engineering or business side of the industry and many are still exploring fields.
But Michael Shekmer Hintzen, 15, of Cascade Township, knows he wants to be an aerospace engineer and is excited the school exists.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the science and math and all the dynamics that go into an aircraft,” said Shekmer Hintzen.
Bailey Wessel, 15, of Grand Rapids, says she is more drawn to the business aspects of the aviation field and likes the being in a smaller school because of the family dynamic.
“WMAA is demonstrating the power and value of a focused and innovative school to families who are here, and those who would like to be here,” said DeVos, a pilot and former state Board of Education member. He is president of the academy’s board.
The school has multiple partners including industry manufacturer GE Aviation, 3290 Patterson Avenue SE. The company assists through mentoring, robotics coursework and providing aviation speakers.
“The continued growth of the West Michigan Aviation Academy will provide a needed boost in the areas of aviation and technical education with a growth path for future engineering students,” said George Kiefer, vice president and general manager, Avionics North America for GE Aviation.
“Our hope is to share our passion and expertise in aviation with the students so it becomes contagious.”
Phillip Johnson, deputy executive director of Gerald R. Ford International Airport, said the school being located at an airport is very unique. He said the exposure enhances the students learning environment.
Cwayna, former principal of East Grand Rapids High School, said the majority of their students are prepared for the academic rigors of the school. He said staff works closely with others in need of more academic help in class, Saturday school and summer school.
“No matter where they live in our area, children can get a best-in-class education empowering them and their careers to take flight to any altitude they imagine,” DeVos said.