Vol. 19,  No.  19 Oct. 5 - Oct. 18,  2006


Aerospace Academy Takes Flight


Following its first-ever graduation ceremony in late June, the Bronx Aerospace Academy, a small military-style high school on the Evander Childs campus, found itself as the poster child for New York City’s education reform plan — a thriving, small, themed, public school, with a low-income minority population, that is taking full advantage of private partnerships.

Last year, the Academy graduated an astounding 93 percent of its students, all of whom will be going on to either college or the military, said Principal Barbara Kirkweg, a former Air Force captain. Most of Kirkweg’s staff simply calls her “the Captain.”

Of the remaining 7 percent of last year’s class — which amounts to only three students — one graduated in August, another should finish in January 2007 and the third will be done by the end of the next school year.

The success rate is even more remarkable given that in June 2002, when Evander Childs was one giant 3,500-student high school, only 31 percent of students who began as ninth graders graduated on time, according to Department of Education (DOE) statistics.

“Great school,” said Samira Ahmed, a spokesperson for New Visions for Public Schools, a non-profit funded by the Gates Foundation that, along with Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, helped mold Kirkweg’s vision for the Academy.

“Bronx Aerospace is a great example of how a visionary leader, dedicated partners, teachers and parents can come together to really achieve something special,” Ahmed said in a telephone interview. “[Kirkweg’s] really created a community there, in every sense of the word. People care about one another.”

The Academy, on East Gun Hill Road just east of White Plains Road, boasted the highest success rate of the 15 small high schools (14 in the Bronx) graduating students for the first time last year. Combined, the graduation rate for those schools was 73 percent. In 2005, the citywide graduation rate was 58.2 percent.

“We’re very proud of the great outcomes our small schools are producing throughout the city,” said DOE spokesperson Alicia Maxey in an e-mailed statement.

According to Kirkweg, the biggest reason for the Academy’s success is that students take ownership of their education and dedicate themselves to the aviation-themed school. She said five of her students never missed a class during their four years. Even during the MTA strike last December, she said, the Academy enjoyed almost perfect attendance.

Sometimes students even have to be kicked out of the building. “I had kids here until nine, ten at night,” Kirkweg said.

Students at the Academy are called cadets and are required to wear military-style uniforms. They are also required to take a leadership training class for their first three years at the Academy, which Kirkweg says instills confidence, discipline and the concept of citizenship. In addition to flight and leadership classes, Academy students take math, science, English and art courses.

School starts for cadets at seven in the morning, and for many, it doesn’t end until seven at night.

In between classes on a recent Thursday morning, a group of cadets practiced marching in the Academy’s hallways just for fun.

And like the real military, the Academy is set up with a chain of command. At the top of the chain is Cadet Captain Herberto Haddock, a small Latino senior with braces and stylish glasses. Teachers at the Academy say Haddock commands more respect from students than much of the faculty. He coordinates most of the Academy’s student activities and also oversees school safety and discipline.

Dressed in his immaculate “dress blues” and wearing a fanny pack stuffed with papers and notebooks, Haddock took a break from his command duties to talk about how the Academy differs from traditional public schools. In addition to being exposed to the wonders of flight (most of the students learn how to fly on simulators and many have logged a handful of hours piloting small planes at Farmingdale Airport on Long Island), Haddock says students are judged based on their performance and leadership skills rather than how cool your clothes are.

“At other schools it’s all about your sneakers and what you wear,” Haddock said. “Here, because of the uniforms, everybody’s the same. You can be whoever you want to be.”

Junior Nigeria Rollock wants to go to Princeton where she plans on studying business or law. She says the other kids at Evander Childs (now a campus of seven different small schools) tend to stereotype Aerospace students as rigid because of their military appearance, but she says they aren’t so different.

“We’re a regular high school,” Rollock said. “We like to joke and have fun just like everyone else.”

Headed by Kirkweg, the Aerospace Academy began as a junior ROTC training program at Evander Childs in 1996. It morphed into an independent school as part of the city’s Small Schools Initiative, which sought to break big schools, like Evander Childs, down into separate themed schools.

Based on her Air Force background, Kirkweg envisioned an aviation-themed school infused with military-style discipline. She said the idea was met with apprehension and that the Aerospace Academy nearly failed to launch.

“They [school officials] wanted ideas to appeal to everyone and not be controversial in any way,” Kirkweg said, adding that critics opposed a military-like environment. “The school had a lot to prove. There was much responsibility on those small shoulders.”

Four years later, Kirkweg looks like a genius. The Gates Foundation, which pours millions of dollars into public schools in New York City, including the Academy, is hyping the Bronx school as well as a handful of other experimental small high schools from similar urban settings in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.

The city is holding the Academy up as a shining star in its reform efforts as well. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has visited twice and attended the June graduation ceremony, which took place on an aircraft carrier, thanks to Kirkweg’s military connections. Earlier in the year, Klein took a turn in the school’s $50,000 flight simulator, a giant realistic video game, which the Academy purchased from a Sacramento company and students helped put together. At the end of the day, students stood in line to hug the chancellor.

“Even the boys,” Kirkweg said. “And my boys aren’t the hugging types.”

It’s indicative of the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from success. “Our goal was achieved,” Kirkweg said. “We changed the experience of a Bronx high school student.”


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