Woodlake High awarded $100K grant from Dept. of Ed

Woodlake High School is one of five rural finalists for U.S. Department of Education’s Rural Tech Project, plans to use money for online aviation program

WOODLAKE – The next Maverick and Goose could come from Woodlake High School, where they plan to introduce an online aviation program after recently being awarded $100,000.

As one of five rural school finalists in the U.S. Department of Education’s Rural Tech Project, WHS will be tasked with advancing technology education, support rural educators, and prepare students for the careers of today and tomorrow.

Selected from a pool of 63 entrants from across the nation, Woodlake High’s new Aviation Pathway will be filled with A-G college prep classes, where students will learn in-demand, transferable skills in aircraft operations, geometry, physics and aerodynamic principles and apply that knowledge through flight simulator work and in-person drone flights.

Woodlake High will be adding the aviation pathway to their collection of pathway prep courses in agricultural studies and natural science, something Dr. Mike Burchett, principal at Woodlake High School, places a lot of value in.

“[A pathway] is a sequence of two to three courses, that when they’re done they’re considered a pathway completer by the state,” Burchett said. “One of the things that the state measures us on if you check on our dashboard is the percentage of students who graduated college career ready. I really think that’s one of the most important metrics we have to look at our progress.”

Almost 40% of Woodlake High’s 2019-2020 school year cohort of 143 students are described as college career ready according to state data, a notch above the 35%—2,248—of Tulare County students who completed the coursework necessary to meet University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) entrance requirements. Census data from 2019 estimates 70.5% of Tulare County residents aged 25 or older have a high school education or higher, but only 14.6% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Rudy Cardona, assistant principal at WHS, says the program was just right place right time for the high school.

“This had to be STEM, and it had to be distance learning,” Cardona said, “and it falls right in line with what’s going on in the world right now with the COVID pandemic and having to meet that challenge head on.”

A retired lieutenant colonel with 25 years of service in 14 different countries under his belt in the United States Air Force, Cardona knows a thing or two about aviation. He also holds two masters degrees, an MBA and a masters in aeronautical science.

“To couple the business ends with aviation is a must when you’re looking at a fleet of aircrafts. So when you apply that here at the high school level, it’s important to know what the community needs,” Cardona said. “What, from a business standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from the Department of Labor standpoint, what are we going to need not just for today, but five years from now 10 years from now in the way of our labor force that understands STEM, that understands aviation, what it brings to your community and how you can see that grow.”

Cardona and the Woodlake High Rural Tech Project team did their due diligence when selecting aviation for their focus.

“This past summer, California was on fire,” Cardona said. “With all the fires all over the place, aviation had a huge impact on fighting those fires, whether it be monitoring the situation or getting into some of those hard areas that were dangerous for humans to get into, a lot of reconnaissance type missions with drones, for example. The actual aircraft carrying fire retardant material to drop on the fires itself. Aviation had a huge play in that.”

Cardona said aviation plays a large role in today’s agricultural industry as well.

“We’re in the heart of ag country here,” Cardona said. “Whether it be monitoring weather patterns, crop production, crop growth, imaging one’s property fields, barometric pressure—there’s so many different applications aside from the traditional crop dusting. Aviation is huge, and the need is going to continue to grow in our area. Right now we have a shortage of people going into that area, so the demand is high, and we need to start contributing into that area. It’s very ripe for the picking, so to speak, and we need our students to be competitive in those areas.”

Woodlake is also home to a public airport, home of the Flying Tigers—a group of primarily young people aspiring to be pilots, sponsored by the Aircraft Operators and Owners and Pilots Association—as well as a group centered more on the mechanical side of aviation. Cardona said he hopes to be able to partner with community stakeholders to widen the breadth of the program and offer internships.

“The focus of the program is to be distanced learning. If we come back to school, fantastic, we can do a lot of great field trips,” Cardona said. “Visalia has an airport, Reedley College and Fresno airport, and there’s Lemoore Naval Air Station—there’s so many opportunities here to do physical field trips. We can do virtual field trips as well, if we should continue with distanced learning.”

Phase 2 will take place from January to July 2021, where Woodlake High School and other finalists will develop detailed program plans and build partnerships before the programs launch. The Rural Tech Project will provide on-the-ground assistance, expert mentorship, and access to virtual resources as they plan, run and refine their programs for two academic years.

Cardona said the turnaround time is tight, but they plan to have Woodlake High’s aviation pathway up and running by August.

“The nice piece is that we are ahead of a lot of schools out there where all of our students already have chromebooks,” Cardona said, “and the district invested in the internet connectivity years ago in our district here, so the connectivity is there—if we continue to be distance learning next year, we’re set for that.”

During summer 2023, teams will document their outcomes and learnings in a final submission; a judging panel will then recommend one grand-prize winner to receive an additional $100,000.

“We know that employment in technology based fields is outpacing growth in other industries,” said Scott Stump, assistant secretary for the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education. “That’s why the Rural Tech Project empowers educators with resources for creating high quality career and technical technology education programs.”

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has since resigned, announced the Rural Tech Project in June 2020, said the project is an opportunity for rural communities to rethink how students access education.

“As I’ve said many times, a student’s education shouldn’t be arbitrarily limited by what’s available inside their brick-and-mortar classroom,” DeVos said, “and that’s never been more apparent than now as the coronavirus pandemic has made clear the need for more innovation to ensure all students have access to robust educational options.”

The Rural Tech project is part of Ed Prizes, a series of prize competitions to develop new products and services to both increase access to, and expand the capacity of, career and technical education. The U.S. Department of Education has awarded $1.7 million prizes through three previous challenges, and $500,000 so far through the Rural Tech Project.

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