Deep Inside New York's JFK Airport, There's A High School

May 6, 2016
Originally published on May 10, 2016 4:01 pm

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.

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 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 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

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 pocketknives 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.

College

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.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport is among the busiest in the U.S. Every day, over 1,000 flights take off and land there. And each year, more than 50 million passengers pass through the gates. But something else is happening too. Not far from the terminals and the moving walkways, there is a class in session. Gabrielle Emanuel of NPR's Ed team went to check it out.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Mike Fisher's classroom has six wheels, two wings and a tail. That's right. It's a Boeing 727.

JILL FISHER: All right, so these are nose tires.

These get less pressure. These get 130 psi.

EMANUEL: Fisher is underneath the plane, teaching a couple dozen high school students. We're out on the tarmac, surrounded by hangars and warehouses and just a couple minutes from JFK's passenger gates.

FISHER: And whenever you put air in the tires, always take out a chalk because otherwise you won't be able to get them out when you put the new air in the tire.

EMANUEL: Fisher's a Bronx native. He's wearing his Yankees cap. He's been teaching for 26 years and working on planes for longer. He pauses the lesson to introduce me.

FISHER: This is Gabrielle, by the way. She just flew in from D.C. on Delta.

EMANUEL: Airline companies are a big deal at Aviation High School. This is a highly sought after school in the nation's largest school district. It has one campus in Long Island City and one here at JFK. All told, this school has more than 2,000 students. They graduate with a diploma and a license to work in the aviation industry. That means all the normal classes, English and history, plus pneumativ power controls and airflow systems.

FISHER: It's hard. They have the longest school day in New York City.

EMANUEL: Is that right?

FISHER: Yeah, some start at 7:00 or 7:15 and get out at 3:30 or 4:15.

EMANUEL: And that doesn't count commute time.

JONATHAN MENISHUR: One bus, two trains.

KALVIN GOVINDEISAMI: Two trains and a bus.

RYAN PRASAD: Two buses and a train was close to two hours.

EMANUEL: Jonathan Menishur (ph), Kalvin Govindeisami and Ryan Prasad (ph) say it's worth it. They take me inside. Where the first-class passengers would sit, the seats have been turned around to make a classroom. Kalvin's particularly excited to show me the cockpit.

GOVINDEISAMI: Now we're going to supply hydraulic power on this plane. We have two electric pumps - electric A pump and electric B pump.

EMANUEL: Airplanes are full of complex systems that require advanced physics and math. That means as soon as students learn a concept, they get to try it out. Kalvin's inspecting a crankshaft.

GOVINDEISAMI: Check that using a micrometer. Since it's a circular object, we have to check two axes, the X-axis and the Y-axis.

EMANUEL: Today, its coordinates, angles and rotations.

GOVINDEISAMI: Tomorrow we'll be doing the magnetic particle inspections, like basically magnetize the part and using a UV light, we'll be able to see cracks.

EMANUEL: But as much as Kalvin likes working on this old 727, he prefers the real thing.

GOVINDEISAMI: The best part of my day is going to Delta. Like, I look forward to going to Delta.

EMANUEL: Right after school, he goes to a paid internship. Every student at the JFK campus is paired up with a company, say, Delta or JetBlue, and works alongside a technician or an engineer.

GOVINDEISAMI: I do a eight-hour shift, 2 o'clock to 10 o'clock.

EMANUEL: Every day?

GOVINDEISAMI: Six days. Five to six.

EMANUEL: He's hoping to get hired as soon as he graduates. And Mike Fisher, his teacher, says that's likely. Almost all the JFK students get job offers.

FISHER: Ninety-nine percent of the class has jobs right out of high school. It's nothing to sneeze at. I have some students that are already making over $100,000 a year.

EMANUEL: This is significant, given that most of the students at Aviation High School come from low-income families. But it doesn't stop at a well-paid job. The vast majority of the students also go on to college.

GOVINDEISAMI: I plan to go to college and get my education degree.

EMANUEL: Kalvin wants to work at Delta. But he also wants to be a teacher right here at Aviation High School. The school tells me this is a common path. Vocational education leads to a job, which lets students go to college and also avoid debt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Folks on the flight deck, welcome aboard 41-3.

EMANUEL: As I buckle my seatbelt on my return flight on Delta, it's Kalvin and his classmates out on the tarmac, checking that very row of planes. Future aircraft technicians and future college students. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.