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Alabama’s First Aerospace & Aviation High School Opens in Bessemer

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By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times

Tia Wilson didn’t want to waste any time getting her 14-year-old into a school to help him fulfill his dream of becoming an astronaut, so she did research to find a good fit for her son, Daniel. She found two schools: One was in Dallas, Texas, and the other was in Bessemer, Alabama—the Alabama Aerospace & Aviation High School (AAHS).

“AAHS seemed well-rounded,” said Wilson. “I saw all of the opportunities it had as it relates to aerospace, pilots, and the support they have with all of the partnerships. … To me, it looked more promising and solid.”

“My brother told me to start looking up places where my son, [who will begin ninth grade next week], could start flyer [lessons] early and obtain his pilot license, so I started researching for places that fit his age range,” she added. “Usually, children have to wait until they are 16, but we wanted to get him started now.”

Wilson was so impressed that she quit her job in the medical field in California on June 10 and moved to Alabama, where Daniel and about 150 students (100 ninth graders and 50 10th graders) will be part of the inaugural class of students at AAHS, which begins the school year on August 22.

“Daniel is so excited. … He’s already doing a lot of homework and research,” Wilson said. “I feel great about my decision to come here.”

AAHS, the first school of its kind in the state of Alabama, will open doors at its temporary Bessemer location on Second Avenue North. Groundbreaking on its permanent location—a 55,000 square foot, $20 million building located near the Bessemer Airport—is scheduled for September; construction is expected to take 24 months.

The school’s founder and superintendent, Ruben Morris, said his goal is to provide AAHS students a high-quality education and prepare them to have an impact on the aerospace aviation industry.

“Right now, fewer than 2 percent of pilots are Black, and for females it’s less than half. That’s a problem,” he said. “Our airline partners think that’s a problem, as well, so they want to diversify that across the board. For the school, we want to be a leader not only in Alabama but also nationally. … [We want to be] a school that people come to look at as the standard for [science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)] education.”

Student enrollment for the upcoming semester is 90 percent African Americans, 8 percent whites, and 2 percent Hispanics and Asians. About 60 percent of the students live in the Bessemer area, while others will travel from Alabama locales as far away as Tuscaloosa, Trussville, and Columbiana. The school, which currently has 15 teachers, will give students the opportunity to develop career-ready skills and even earn industry certifications with the school’s aerospace and aviation partnerships, Morris said.

Partnerships for Success

Some of AAHS’s the partners include Tuskegee University and Auburn University, both of which will provide curriculum support, tutors, college tours, guest speakers, instructional support, internships, summer camps, and dual enrollment; Miles College, which will provide guest speakers, instructional support, summer camps, and college tours; and the Bessemer Airport Authority, which will provide field trips, guest speakers, instructional support, flight hours, and curriculum support.

Tim Wasyluka, executive director of the Bessemer Municipal Airport, looks forward to having the school near his facility.

“[AAHS is] a phenomenal opportunity for the community and the city of Bessemer, the families and kids in the city, and I think it can really have a life-changing impact on so many people,” Wasyluka said of the school, which will operate independently of the airport.

The school’s permanent location will be like other tenants at the airport that have hangers, Wasyluka said.

“Before we met [Morris], we were pursuing efforts to have an educational outreach to the community. … [The AAHS] accelerated those efforts and opportunities,” he added. “Again, we are really excited, and that’s part of our mission at the airport. … This opportunity and the events that are happening at the airport [are more] indications of how Bessemer has been growing and improving over the last 10-plus years.”

AAHS also has partnerships with Delta Airlines and Republic Airways, both of which are interested in setting up a maintenance facility to start flying their regional planes into the Bessemer Municipal Airport to get serviced.

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Solid Academic Foundation

“AAHS is a public school like any other in the area. ‘Charter’ basically means we have a little more flexibility to do the aviation program,” said Morris, who first discussed forming the school in 2020 with his wife, Jonta, founder of Legacy Prep, Birmingham’s first charter school, and former Birmingham City Councilman John Hilliard.

What makes AAHS different? “We have more accountability,” the superintendent said, explaining that the school has a five-year contract and must meet a number of goals to remain open.

“We have a school board that, just like other public schools, does all of our physical management because we receive state and federal funds not local funds,” said Morris.

Also integral to AAHS are its instructors. Morris said he’s pleased with the diverse teaching staff of 15, which has only three first-year teachers.

“Our average experience level is about five or six years, and they are coming from [school districts like Birmingham City Schools and Hoover City Schools, as well as] high-performing private schools,” he said. “We wanted to find the best and the brightest, and we have been able to attract some really talented people.”

One of those is Dean of Aviation Melvin Dealie, Ph.D., a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, who has flown military aircraft like the B-2 Spirit, also known as the Stealth Bomber, and the B-52 Stratofortress.

Also, according to the U.S. Naval Institute website, Dealie “has flown combat operations as part of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, including a record-setting 44.3-hour combat mission.”

The AAHS curriculum will include critical thinking, reading, and writing complemented by active research that allows students to address real-world problems: “Everything is designed to be hands-on and applicable to what students will experience in the aerospace and aviation industry,” said Morris.

“My goal is to open this up beyond just our students and to have aircraft maintenance training available to students who are enrolled at other schools and want to learn how to work on airplanes,” he added, noting that students will have the opportunity to work on planes and small aircraft, such as the Cessna 172.

AAHS students will take traditional math courses like algebra and geometry, utilizing unique technology. Among the tools being incorporated into the curriculum is Prisms, a virtual reality (VR) learning platform that “[allows] students to physically interact with mathematical concepts” and creates a “more innovative and exciting learning environment” according to BusinessWire.com. The platform teaches math via a device similar to the Oculus VR system headset, which is popular for gaming and entertainment.

“Although we are a STEM high school, we are developing a robust art program, too. We are partnering with Red Mountain Theatre to offer … theater arts because we have a beautiful auditorium,” said Morris, adding that the school may also have a choir and will include among its course offerings music production and a history of hip-hop class.

Students will also have the opportunity to participate in athletics. AAHS is a member of the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) and will have boys and girls basketball, track and field, and soccer teams. Students will be able to participate in e-sports, as well.

“We recently brought an e-sport to Birmingham called Soccer Drone, and we competed in [The World Games 2022 (TWG 2022)],” said Morris.

This past summer, students participated in camps at the temporary AAHS campus and at Auburn University, giving them an opportunity to compete at TWG 2022.

Patrick Mills, K-12 Outreach Committee chair for Delta Air Lines, said the decision to commit to support AAHS was easy.

“This school will not only [develop] a pipeline of development for future aviation mechanics and pilots but also, with the additional wide range of course curricula, provide the local community, state, and country with a resource of young aviation professionals that will be second to none,” he said.

To learn more about the Alabama Aerospace and Aviation High School (AAHS), visit https://alaahs.org/.

— BOX —

AAHS Partners

According to the Alabama Aerospace and Aviation High School (AAHS) website, the soon-to-open charter school is “creating the aviation and aerospace leaders of tomorrow.” To support this mission, the AAHS has established partnerships with a broad range of leaders in education and aeronautics, including:

  • Delta Tech Ops (curriculum support, guest speakers, instructional support, apprenticeships, internships, field trips)
  • Tuskegee University (curriculum support, tutors, college tours, guest speakers, instructional support, internships, summer camps, dual enrollment)
  • Auburn University (curriculum support, tutors, college tours, guest speakers, instructional support, internships, summer camps, dual enrollment)
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham (instructional support, college tours, dual enrollment)
  • Alabama State University (guest speakers, instructional support, college tours, summer camps, dual enrollment)
  • Miles College (guest speakers, instructional support, summer camps, college tours)
  • Snead State Community College (curriculum support, tutors, guest speakers, instructional support, college tours, dual enrollment)
  • Lawson State Community College (curriculum support, tutors, guest speakers, instructional support, college tours, summer camps, dual enrollment)
  • Bessemer Airport Authority (field trips, guest speakers, instructional support, flight hours, curriculum support)
  • Kaiser Aircraft Industries (field trips and guest speakers)
  • 117th Air Guard Air Refueling Wing (field trips, guest speakers, instructional support, curriculum support)
  • Blue Origin Aerospace Company (field trips, guest speakers, instructional support, curriculum support)