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Reaching New Heights: Aviation Classes Taking Off For Dallas ISD Elementary Kids

North Texas aviation classes are reaching new heights as elementary students are studying flight science for the first time in the region. This soaring trend of classroom aviation can develop technology and math skills, and help launch careers.  

Some area high schools offer aviation courses that cover aeronautical engineering and aviation administration to piloting skills. But now 14 DISD schools will offer such classes to more than 600 fourth and fifth graders starting this month. 

Jim Thompson hopes they inspire students the way he was inspired decades ago.

“It changed the way I thought about things and the way that I learned things," Thompson says. "It taught me about judgment, risk."

The successful investor has flown his own plane for 31 years. With his wife, he formed the Blue Sky Foundation, which is helping to fund this elementary program.

“Sometimes the images that form in your imagination as a young person can stay with you your whole life. I think that’s about the time I got bit by the aviation bug.”  

"Wow, that's really cool"

Sammie Perez got bit by the bug in third or fourth grade.

“You know I was probably 8 or 9 years old," Perez says. "My brother joined the Navy working on F-18 fighters. I would always see pictures of him working on multi-million dollar jets and [think] 'Wow, that’s really cool.' But I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do still -- until about middle school.”

Perez went through Skyline Magnet High School’s aviation program, graduated, then got into aeronautics school. Now 21, he soon expects to be certified as a flight instructor. He would have loved elementary aviation classes.

“If I had gone through this program when I was in fifth or sixth grade, that definitely would have helped out in the long run,” Perez says. “If you can space out your training and start earlier, it’s more beneficial to the student.”

The curriculum comes from Oshkosh, Wis., where ErronSagen has taught aviation to third graders for a dozen years.

“The value is that carrot that can drive an interest,” Sagen says, “but more important we’re teaching them how to think like scientists, experiment, how to bring in data, see what the world is like.”

Hands-on experience

Some North Texas high schools pursue the same concepts. McKinney ISD has its own flight simulator where students can learning piloting skills.

Dunbar High School in Fort Worth has a donated propeller plane and eventually will get a 20,000 square-foot hangar for more planes and a jet engine, according to Dennis Dunkins. Dunbar High has about 30 students in its four-year aviation program.

“They’ve got to learn how to think," Dunkins says. "And how to be able to overcome some difficulties.”

Dunkins helped set up Fort Worth’s magnet program. He stood in front of the donated Cessna students will re-assemble and says you never know how that hands-on experience will pay off. As an example, he brings up Apollo 13, and says the astronauts' experience brought them home.  

“When that chip exploded out in space,” Dunkins says, “it wasn’t just the ground crew. It was those in space who had to do things by their previous training. That’s what these young people are here -- learning how to do things by their training.”

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.