A group of aviation enthusiasts led by Dick DeVos of Amway has created an unusual, perhaps totally unique, public high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is the West Michigan Aviation Academy now in its third year of operation.
The Academy is a charter school under the Michigan state education system. That means it is open to any high school age student in Michigan with absolutely no tuition or fees. It is a public high school, but with a very special aviation emphasis.
Under the Michigan charter school system the government pays for the cost of the basic education, including all of the normally required classes and subjects. But privately raised funds coming from aviation businesses and flying enthusiasts make the aviation emphasis possible.
The West Michigan Aviation Academy (WMAA) has a beautiful purpose-built facility on the Grand Rapids airport with access to taxiways and runways. The building is made possible by the support of private companies such as Gulfstream and private foundations and individuals making donations.
The WMAA emphasis is on science, technology, engineering and math. Whenever appropriate aviation is the example of how classroom instruction can be applied to real world application. Students study aviation specific topics, have a chance to fly in gliders and the school’s Cessna 172, and many are actively building and flying radio control models.
At WMAA all aspects of aviation are the inspiration for students to study and learn, but the structure and discipline required to succeed as a pilot, aircraft designer, manufacturer or maintainer are the core of the curriculum. Parents bring some of the nearly 300 students from as far away as 60 miles to give their kids the opportunity to learn in an aviation inspired environment. The fundamental concept that DeVos and the others who pioneered WMAA believe is that it shouldn’t matter what your zip code is, all students deserve the opportunity to receive the best possible education.
This week the WMAA hosted its third “The Leaders of Tomorrow Gala” fundraising dinner that was held in the Amway hangar on Grand Rapids airport. More than 900 people attended and the featured speaker was past President George W. Bush. President Bush arrived several hours earlier to spend time with the WMAA students. The President was candid about his own educational career, humorous and as entertaining as anybody from any political persuasion could have hoped for.
Gulfstream was the underwriter of the Gala and its president Larry Flynn was on hand along with a new G280 super midsize Gulfstream that was the backdrop for the speaker’s podium in the hangar. Several other aviation companies were sponsors, including Waco Aircraft that builds those beautiful classic biplanes. But support for WMAA is widespread and not limited to aviation and dozens of business and charitable foundations were very generous in their support.
All of us in aviation believe that flying is special, an activity with great risks and challenges that must be managed, but something that offers unmatched reward. Could there be a better environment for public high school students than to me immersed in our world of private aviation? I don’t think so. And neither do aviation industry and community leaders in West Michigan.
The WMAA slogan is “A High School Where Attitude Meets Altitude.” And I would add it is a place where private aviation and the people who love it work together with government to make a very special public high school.