Two local high schools plan to launch aviation academies next school year, training desert students for high-flying, high-paying jobs as pilots, air traffic controllers and aeronautical engineers.
These academies will be the first of their kind in the desert. But more importantly, officials say they will continue the steady expansion of career technical education, which has blossomed at local schools in recent years.
Generally, students in these career-focused academies have performed better than their non-academy peers — even on standard subjects like math and English.
An aviation academy is planned at Shadow Hills High School, and a second one will open at either Coachella Valley High or Desert Mirage High, according to school district officials.
Shadow Hills will start recruiting for its academy in February, and an aviation club has already been formed to foster interest.
“The kids are already chattering about it,” Shadow Hills Principal Marcus Wood said. “They don’t know exactly what the academy is yet, partly because we are still developing that … But they are definitely thinking about it.”
The Shadow Hills academy is expected to start next fall with two introductory classes for sophomore students — today’s freshmen — and expand as those students become juniors and seniors over the following two years.
Desert Sands Unified is a “school of choice” district, so students who currently attend other mid-valley schools can transfer to Shadow Hills if they would like to join the unique, new academy. The same is true of Coachella Valley Unified, so the aviation academy will be available to all east valley students, regardless of which school is chosen for the academy.
Neither academy will have their full details finalized until until the spring, when proposals will go before the respective school boards.
These aviation academies were first proposed by the Jacqueline Cochran Air Museum Education Center, a nonprofit that is working to build a museum at the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in Thermal.
Ideally, aviation academies will work with the nonprofit and the airport for field trips, student internships and real-life experience for upperclassmen.
Alexander Dobrecevic, communications director for the nonprofit, said the academies were envisioned to expose students to the often-overlooked opportunity of the aviation industry.
“We have this undiscovered industry here in the desert,” Dobrecevic said.
“One that is not talked about very much, but is definitely able to provide them with interesting, fun and pretty great careers.”
Several businesses have already committed to offer internships to academy students, Dobrecevic said.
The Shadow Hills academy will share the Jacqueline Cochran name, in part to attract female students to the aviation industry, which has been traditionally dominated by men.
Cochran, who once lived in Indio, was a pioneering pilot during the first half of the 20th century.
Desert Sands Board member Gary Tomak, a retired air traffic controller, said he was thrilled that Shadow Hills may help train the next generation of the aviation industry.
Without this new academy, those students might grow up to do something else entirely, Tomak said.
“Out here in the desert, there are so many things that (students) have never thought about as a possible career,” Tomak said. “They see teachers. They see doctors. They see policemen. And so we see these careers generated. But there is so much more out there.”
Although the two aviation academies will be the newest career technical academies in the Coachella Valley, they will be far from the first.
Currently, every high school in the Coachella Valley offers at least one career-oriented academy or curricular pathway. Some, like La Quinta High School, have three.
And more are on the way.
Rancho Mirage High School is on track to introduce its third academy, which will focus on automotive careers. The school opened in 2013 with specialized curriculum focused on culinary arts and theater.
In the east valley, Coachella Valley Unified has launched a “Wall-to-Wall Academies Initiative,” which includes long-term plans to add as many as seven new academies to district schools.
The district also plans to expand career technical education into the middle schools, using robotics classes to prepare students for existing digital arts academies.
The reason for this rapid expansion is clear: Academy students leave high school with more options and more career potential.
Generally, academy students have higher graduation rates and higher test scores then their peers in regular classes. Academy graduates also are more likely to be ready for a four-year university, despite the fact that they have been trained for a career that may not require a college degree.
Deanna Kevilian, the career technical education administrator in Desert Sands, said she felt academy students have proven more successful simply because they are more engaged in their classwork. By linking lessons to specific careers, academies make school work feel more meaningful, combating the apathy that drags so many teenagers off track
“It’s a hook,” Kevilian said. “It connects them to school. It adds a relevance to why they are learning what they are learning.”
Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, echoed a similar belief during a September visit to the desert, where he toured La
Quinta High and Palm Springs High specifically to look at the career technical education programs.
“The kind of programs you have here (are) evidence that we are moving in the right direction,” Torlakson said.
“We know that when someone begins to dream of a particular job pathway, they get more motivated. They understand the connection between the science, the math, the music, the civics and the history. There is a relevancy that keeps them excited and engaged in school and gives them a focus. It’s learning with a purpose.”