Deep Inside New York's JFK Airport, There's A High School
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New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport is among the busiest in the country: More than 1,000 flights touch down and take off each day. More than 50 million passengers hurry through its gates each year.
But something else is happening too.
Not far from the waxed floors of the terminals and the automated voice proclaiming the end of the moving walkway, there's a school. And a classroom that has six wheels, two wings, and a tail. It is a Boeing 727, parked on the tarmac near the hangars and warehouses.
The first-class seats have been stripped down to expose their metal innards, and spun around to face a whiteboard.
Welcome to Aviation High School.
On this particular day, about 20 students are gathered by the nose tires to practice checking the air pressure.
"It's scary business," says Mike Fisher, in a raspy Bronx accent. "If somebody tried to put the pressure from the bottle straight into the tire, they'd blow the tire up."
The students crouch down and check the pressure gauge carefully.
Joseline Lazo works on fixing a four-cylinder aircraft engine during class at JFK Airport. Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
Aviation High is a highly sought-after school in the nation's largest school district. It's funded by New York City's department of education and also accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The JFK school is a large annex of Aviation High's main campus in Long Island City.
All told, there are about 2,200 students. They graduate with a diploma and a license that lets them work in the aviation industry. The JFK campus is reserved for some of the school's best students in their final year.
They take all the normal courses, plus classes on reciprocating turbine engines, pneumatic power controls and airflow systems.
Kalvin Govindeisami, one of the students at the JFK campus, is inspecting a crankshaft.
"Since it's a circular object, we have to check that using two axes: the X-axis and the Y-axis," the 18-year-old explains.
Since airplanes are full of complicated systems that require physics and math, the students often get to try out concepts they've learned in the classroom: coordinates, angles, rotation.
Kalvin says his next task is doing a magnetic particle inspection. "Basically magnetize the part," Kalvin explains, "and, using a UV light, we'll be able to see cracks."
But as much as Kalvin likes working on this retired 727, he says he prefers the real thing: "The best part of my day is going to Delta."
Mixing Work And School
Students gather under the wheel carriage to practice checking the tire pressure. "It's scary business," warns their teacher, Mike Fisher. "If somebody tried to put the pressure from the bottle straight into the tire, they'd blow the tire up." Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR
Every student on the JFK campus is paired up with an airline, like Delta, and works alongside a technician or engineer.
For Kalvin's internship, he helps check planes at Terminal 2 and Terminal 4.
"I do an eight-hour shift, 2 o'clock to 10 o'clock," says Kalvin, who works five or six days each week.
Mario Cotumaccio, the assistant principal, is the one who set up the paid internships program over 25 years ago. He says it took a lot of convincing to get this program off the ground.
"When I initially proposed the idea to airlines, they were like, 'No. No. We can't do this.' "
Cotumaccio says they were nervous. "There's this stereotype of a New York City student: They all carry guns and pocket knives and you need a metal detector to come into a school."
Once the first airline signed up in 1986, others soon followed. "It's been flourishing ever since," Cotumaccio says.
Now Aviation High School partners with eight companies, including Delta, JetBlue and British Airways.
He estimates that 12 percent of aircraft technicians in the country come from Aviation High Schools.
Kalvin is hoping to be one of them. He'd like to work for Delta as soon as he graduates. And Mike Fisher, his teacher, say there's a good chance he'll get there.
"Ninety-nine percent of the [JFK] class has jobs [offers] right out of high school," says Fisher. "I have some students that are already making a hundred thousand dollars a year."
"It's nothing to sneeze at," Fisher adds, particularly since the majority of these students come from low-income families and are first generation.
Students work on a reciprocating engine, used for small aircraft.
It doesn't stop with a well-paid job. The vast majority of students from Aviation High School also go to college. Some go to top universities, many go to local colleges and a handful go to military academies.
Cotumaccio admits this isn't always easy.
"Our youngsters are having a hard time paying for college," he says. "What they'll do, is they'll work at night and go to [college] in the morning or vice versa."
That's Kalvin's plan. He wants to work at Delta while getting a college degree. Eventually, he hopes to be a teacher right here at Aviation High School.
Students walk in and out of emergency doors on the wing of their Boeing 727 "classroom."