Fresno Unified has unveiled plans for a new STEM Aviation Academy & Exploration Center at Chandler Airport in west Fresno, where students will learn how to become a pilot or aircraft mechanic or take on any of a number of aviation-related jobs.
Wednesday’s presentation at the School Board meeting was years in the making.
Jeremy Ward, assistant superintendent for College and Career Readiness, told GV Wire last year that the Aviation Academy — believed to be the first of its kind in the nation because it will be on airport grounds — requires getting a buy-in not only from the School Board but also State Center Community College District, which will provide dual enrollment classes through the aviation program at Reedley College, the city of Fresno airports department, the California Department of Education, Caltrans, and the FAA.
As it’s the first of its kind, there’s no model to follow, so officials are being particularly careful in reviewing the proposal, he said.
Aviation Center Opening Eyed for Fall 2025
Ward told the School Board Wednesday night that barring delays, the aviation center could be as early as the fall of 2025. Plans call for two hangars and an exploration center, where students as young as transitional kindergarten can come for field trips to learn about aviation.
“After learning about a forecasted shortage in all aviation-related labor markets and high-skill, high-wage jobs that are projected over the next 20 years, we set out to build a high-interest, highly engaging program that would provide our students access to industry that has the ability to change family and community economic trajectories,” Ward said.
As a STEM center — STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — students will take high school and two-year college courses that will give them a solid foundation for aviation careers through the career technical education pathway.
In addition to daily classes — 11th- and 12th-grade students would spend half their school day at the center, the other half at their home high school — and field trips, the center would be used for the district’s summer and winter camps. Students may be offered dual enrollment courses through Reedley College’s aviation program so they can graduate with their high school diploma and an associate degree, saving thousands of dollars that would otherwise pay for college and training costs. A California public high school education is free.
After seeing concepts of the proposed two hangars and the Engagement Center on Wednesday, School Board members could barely contain their excitement over the project that will prepare Fresno students for good-paying careers.
“The sky is not the limit anymore,” Trustee Valerie Davis said.
Trustee Andy Levine said he was “blown away” by the Aviation Academy proposal and concepts, and joked that he was upset he wouldn’t be able to enroll in it “so I might try to sneak into a couple of classes.”
Educational offerings like an Aviation Academy are “what makes kids love to be at school and excited and they can’t wait to get there,” Board Clerk Susan Wittrup said before adding, “When do we start working on the partnership with NASA and the astronaut program?”
What Will It Cost?
District spokeswoman Nikki Henry and Ward did not respond Thursday to queries about how the project will be funded.
Ward told GV Wire last year that the project would begin with temporary buildings such as portables, and permanent buildings costing millions of dollars could be financed through a combination of sources. The district applied for and received state career technical education incentive grant funding for an aviation focus, Ward said last year.
“It’s important to note, though, that that (the state grant) will get us started. That’s not going to build the second phase, finalized facility. And those funds for that will be many millions of dollars, I have no doubt,” he said.
The program would start out with about 70 to 75 students in a morning session and another 70 to 75 students in an afternoon session, with the capacity for expanding to more students in future years, Ward said.
If the interest shown by students in the aviation summer camps is any indication, Aviation Academy seats will be coveted. But the students selected will have to show they are capable of taking on a rigorous academic program that could include college dual enrollment courses, he said.
“There really is no hardcore criteria, although you can imagine that a student who is, I’ll just say significantly behind in graduation credits … I’m not talking a student who’s behind by a few credits, I’m talking about a student who’s behind by a grade level or more. That would be difficult for them to be successful towards graduation in a program like this.”
State Center is looking forward to the opportunity to expand dual enrollment opportunities through the Aviation Academy, which is a “natural progression” of Reedley College’s aviation mechanics program, Chancellor Carole Goldsmith told GV Wire on Thursday.
“We believe our young students can reach new heights and this partnership is one example of our commitment to our community,” she said in a text message. “The aviation industry offers an excellent future for our students.”
Aviation Academy Facilities Outlined
Ward said Wednesday night that Hangar 1, which is the northernmost building, would focus on flight operations and include space for operable aircraft, classrooms, and a second-floor conference area. The building also will contain a seating area for 300 that can be pushed up against the wall when not needed.
Hangar 2 next to Kearney Boulevard will be the instructional hangar where students can take high school and technical aviation classes. “In addition to the main office, there will be a flight simulator lab in this facility, and engine and tool shop instructional spaces required for classes that students will need in order to graduate on time and be college entrance ready,” he said. The building will be designed with flexibility in mind, including space for students to learn how to fly drones. It also will include a small, third-floor area meant to simulate a control tower.
The Engagement Center will be to the east of Hangar 2 and will contain interactive exhibits and other educational materials geared to elementary school students, Ward said. The site will be available for field trips and other activities, and the goal is to encourage younger children to develop an interest in aviation.
City, FUSD Still in Talks
The School Board on Wednesday approved the Aviation Academy project as part of the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program Funding Plan.
The vote of approval was necessary for the city’s airports department and school district to continue their discussions over leasing the site at Chandler, airports spokeswoman Vikkie Calderon said Thursday. Negotiations are expected to take no longer than six months, she said.
But the city won’t be able to give the school district a break on the lease, Calderon said: “The FAA requires fair market value for all leases.”
Building a high school facility on the grounds of an active airport requires paying careful attention to safety zones that outline proximity to Chandler’s runway. School facilities are not allowed in zone 5, which is closest to the runway, but are allowed in zone 6.
Plans for the project show that the northeast corner of the Engagement Center is right on the edge of the two zones. The Engagement Center and Hangar 2, which would be used for aircraft maintenance classes, are closest to Kearney Boulevard and are on the site of what is now empty land.
Hangar 1, where students will practice flying drones and on flight simulators before taking to the skies, would be on the site of an old hangar. That hangar is unoccupied now, Calderon said.
A Boost for Southwest Fresno
Trustee Claudia Cazares said the Aviation Academy will give families in southwest Fresno — long one of the city’s most under-served neighborhoods — a front-row view of aviation career opportunities, but she cautioned district administrators to make sure they involve community members in discussions as the project develops.
The Aviation Academy is more than just a new career technical education pathway, Cazares said. “I think probably the most important part is, this is a significant investment in southwest Fresno,” she said. “This isn’t just a significant investment in our school district. It’s a significant investment in that neighborhood.”
Michael Tomazin of Skyleader Aircraft, who has worked closely with the district on its summer camp aviation program as well as developing the new aviation program, says he sees firsthand the impact that aviation programs can have on southwest Fresno youngsters.
One of his student pilots told him, “Mr. T, most of my life I was looking through the fence at this airport. I never, ever dreamed I would be looking down at Chandler from an airplane I’m flying.”