The Denver sky is clear on a Wednesday morning in September, blue except for a few wispy clouds. Normally, this would make for an ideal day for kids to play outdoors, but today, a group of middle-schoolers are waiting restlessly in the parking lot of the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, staring at the horizon.
“Four minutes, four minutes,” announces Dalton Peck, a 6-foot-1 eighth-grader who towers over the other kids, all wearing white polo shirts and black slacks. “In four minutes, we will get to the chopper.” He cackles dramatically, with the air of a mad scientist about to make a breakthrough.
Dalton and the 40 to 50 sixth- through eighth-graders standing around him aren’t mad—but they are fledgling scientists. Many want to be pilots or astronauts—people who fly into the sky and beyond. Riding in the oncoming yellow helicopter will be their first hands-on experience at Wings Aerospace Academy (WAA), a new aviation-focused charter school that’s run by the air and space museum and fueled by the dreams of ambitious kids.
“Do you hear something?” calls out headmaster Robert Stannard Jr., who has worked as both an engineer and a school district superintendent. The mood shifts as the students strain their ears. Stannard grins. He looks nothing like the kids around him, with his black suit and thinning hair, but he understands how excited they must be. His smile grows wider as the sound of whirring blades draws closer. “Oh,” he says. “I hear something.”
The charter school concept isn’t new, but it’s gained popularity over the past decade, particularly in Colorado. Upwards of 100,000 students were enrolled in Colorado charter schools as of 2014, representing more than 10 percent of the state’s K–12 population. The flexibility of these tuition-free schools, which are often designed with a specific focus, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), appeals to parents whose kids’ preferred learning styles fall outside the public or private school toolbox.
In WAA’s case, the school’s unorthodox schedule is composed of four days of online courses, which give students access to the best lectures available on the Internet. (The school will stream a lesson from, say, the foremost expert on quadratic equations instead of relying on Stannard or its several other staff members to teach it.) This method also makes it easier to customize the material; Stannard says a few of his eighth graders have reached the level of Algebra II, a class that’s not usually taught in public schools until 10th grade.
Students spend part of the week’s remaining school day on-site at WAA—which is housed in rooms just off the main museum space—where they work on assignments and ask questions of their supervisors or fellow students. The rest of that day, of course, is the best part, when kids who spend their free time listening to Denver International Airport’s frequencies learn to build rockets, fly drones, or on this particular morning, take a ride in a helicopter.
WAA will add another grade level each year until the program reaches through 12th grade (this year’s eighth-graders will graduate from high school in 2019). By then, they’ll have a huge advantage over the competition if they choose to pursue one of about 103,000 airline and commercial pilot jobs in the U.S. (Some students aren’t interested in pursuing a career in aviation or space, but have chosen WAA for the nontraditional experience.)
WAA parent Cliff Stults is thrilled that the school is investing in the future of the aerospace industry, especially through passionate kids like his daughter, McKenna. Before WAA was conceived, he says he would drive McKenna to the museum from Centennial every weekend to look at the planes and exhibits. Already a veteran of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles Program, designed to inspire kids to become aerospace professionals, McKenna’s now one of three girls out of 17 students in WAA’s inaugural eighth-grade class.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was 13,” he says. “The thing is, my daughter is so into aviation that she talks to everyone about it… They don’t want to talk about all the details with her, so it’s nice for her to have this community of aviation geeks.”
Only a few weeks into the school year, McKenna is thriving. She shakes my hand vigorously and starts talking about how she’s angling for a ride with acclaimed aerobatic pilot Sean D. Tucker when he comes to visit the school. “I made up my mind that I want to be a stunt pilot,” she says as her mop of golden curls bobs with enthusiasm. “It feels even more free. When you’re on a roller coaster, it’s super cool. Combine it with aviation, and oh my god, this is amazing.”
Just then, Mark Hyatt, chief operating officer of Wings Over the Rockies, walks by and catches McKenna’s enthusiasm. A retired Air Force pilot and former executive director of the Colorado Charter School Institute, he’s Stannard’s kindred spirit but also his foil—the idea man to the headmaster’s practical knowhow.
“See, I think school needs to be exciting,” he says. “We need to light this person up. We need her to get excited about taking my place.” He gestures to McKenna. “I want you to have my job.” Seeing her skepticism, he adds, “Well, now my job is to help young people, but I used to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force.”
“Whoa,” she says. “What planes did you fly?”
“I flew F-4s, F-111s, F-5s,” Hyatt says. McKenna nods in recognition. “That’s sweet,” she says.
Later, Hyatt tells me he’s eager to recruit more young women like McKenna into aviation, as well as local kids in general. Colorado employs more private aerospace workers per capita than any other state, but imports most of the labor. And just over six percent of American pilots are women. He has big plans, some of which are already in motion. The Wings Aerospace Enrichment Program, for instance, allows kids between the ages of 10 and 17 to participate in experiences similar to WAA students, but after normal school hours. Here, they gain practical skills, are invited to STEM mini courses and guest lectures, receive priority application status for other Wings Education programs, and gain access to internship opportunities in the industry.
With the laser focus on one niche topic, it’s logical that families are clamoring to enroll their passionate kids. In fact, Hyatt says he’s gotten letters from neighboring schools complaining that WAA is “stealing their best students.” “Up your game,” Hyatt says in response. “Steal ’em back.”
The Bell 407 helicopter kicks up dirt and dust as it settles on the ground. I’m the adult in charge of four seventh-graders about to take a ride with pilot Jeff Puckett, who donates his time to take kids on free flights in the Denver area. As we walk closer to the launch site, I ask the nearest 12-year-old, Nathan Cubley, if he’s excited to get up in the air. “This isn’t my first time,” he scoffs. The others seem slightly more eager, but Asia Foerester, the only girl in the group, admits to being scared. She stares down at her Chucks, scuffing them on the grass. Inevitably, she gets to ride in the front seat when we climb into the chopper.
We take off quickly and zoom toward downtown from the school’s Lowry location. As the helicopter flies over skyscrapers and past Coors Field, the kids’ expressions have turned gleeful—even Nathan’s. Puckett asks Asia if she wants to take the controls, and her curiosity overpowers her fear. After a couple of minutes, she ventures a hopeful question: “Am I doing it?”
“Asia,” Puckett says, “you rock.”
Follow editorial assistant Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.