Woodlake High School, in Woodlake, California, is one of five Rural Tech Project finalist teams helping students build in-demand, transferable skills for careers. For this U.S. Department of Education innovation challenge, Woodlake developed an aviation pathway to prepare students for regional aviation careers and postsecondary degrees. Students learn geometry, aerodynamic principles, and drone operations, and earn industry certifications and college credits.

Aviation Pathway students complete two years of coursework — Math for Aviation and Aviation 1 — with an emphasis on project-based learning as they use flight simulators and work in “flight crews” to accomplish missions. Students can become OSHA 10 certified and receive an aviation certificate, such as an FAA drone operator license. Industry experts visit Woodlake to share their experiences with students; previous speakers have included leaders from the U.S. Air Force, California Aeronautical University, Naval Air Station Lemoore, and Southwest Airlines. Select students participate in a paid internship program with Benson Aviation, connecting skills from their coursework to real-world applications. Aviation Pathway students also earn dual-credit from Reedley College through a recently established partnership. 

Woodlake surveyed students during the first year of the program, and two-thirds planned to continue the pathway. Students in the pathway also achieved higher math grades than the average grades in other sections of the school’s integrated math course. We spoke with Jeannae Carmichael (Counselor at Woodlake High School) and Carmita Peña (Coordinator of College and Career Programs at Woodlake High School) about the impact of their program. They shared advice for other schools and their takeaways as they have expanded their program over the past two academic years. 

Tell us more about the impact of your program — what outcomes are you most proud of?

​​Jeannae: Since creating the program, the interest has spiked. More students are becoming interested, and the community support that we have — for our students to go to our local airport and connect with real professionals in the field — has really changed the relationship. We also have developed a relationship with a different local community college than we have used in the past. It’s the first time that we’re able to offer dual-enrollment courses through this community college. The program has opened up different opportunities to provide our students with more certifications and college credits to move forward with the next step after graduation and actually go out into the field and apply the skills that they’ve learned.

They’ve also been able to utilize the skills that they’ve learned to directly impact the school environment. Those with a drone operator license are able to record graduation ceremonies and dances and they use that footage on campus. So it’s developing a culture where we can apply the skills we’re learning in real time and change the surroundings and the environment in which we currently live and operate.

Carmita: I’m the Coordinator of College and Careers Programs and have been working on pathway development starting in 2015-16, when we started the agriculture academy. We currently offer nine pathways that students are able to choose from at Woodlake High School. The Aviation Pathway has been a smooth pathway development process as we immediately had industry partners interested in supporting this pathway — this includes the partnerships established with our local airport and Reedley College.

Something that we are proud of in this pathway is the ability to start with certifications from the get-go. Certifications are always a challenge for pathways because there are either too many or not many within a specific industry. This challenge has made it difficult for other pathways to start certifications and keep those certifications, but a drone certification has been a benefit for students. The students are able to see themselves applying the skills at our site along with the potential of being employed right out of high school or even during high school. That’s been a way to promote the Aviation Pathway and draw student interest.

While we have experienced the need to drop a pathway due to lack of student interest, I do not see that happening with aviation because not only is there the demand, but also the community connection. Establishing a network of industry partners takes time — and can often be one of the biggest challenges within a pathway — but we have been fortunate to have a very strong industry partnership from the start. Every time I’ve been involved with the development of a new pathway the goal is to get the industry because you may have staff that have no background industry experience. You really need to tie in that industry partner to help you champion the career awareness piece. The partnerships have been a huge success, and I think it’s going to grow the Aviation Pathway.

The program has opened up different opportunities to provide our students with more certifications and college credits to move forward with the next step after graduation and actually go out into the field and apply the skills that they’ve learned.

Jeannae Carmichael

What advice would you have for other schools looking to start a new technology education program? 

Carmita: It takes somebody who really is interested and knowledgeable in the area and has connections. It’s drawing on the community — you have those community champions who will step up and make sure that they can connect you to whatever you need. So you don’t have to have the knowledge necessarily. You have to have the person who’s willing to research and connect with the people who do, and they will help you with that.  And the certifications — making sure you get certifications from the get-go. That helps students stay motivated to continue and it makes recruitment a lot easier as well.

Jeannae: It’s important to look at what the demands are of the workforce. If you’re able to tie that into a student graduating and applying those skills, they’re more likely to see the fruits of their labor sooner. I believe that by having our students be exposed to the certifications — being able to earn a drone operator license to apply the skills — that’s why we had three students just graduate and continue on to Reedley College. They will be enrolled in the fall and apply to be part of the aviation mechanic program. They’ve been able to apply the skills in high school and now they’re taking the next step before entering into the workforce. What they’ve learned relates to what’s actually happening in the real world, and I think that’s crucial for students to get involved and see the vision.

Carmita: As I hear Ms. Carmichael’s response, I think of how important it is to connect with a local community college. That partnership or dual-enrollment opportunity will allow students to see the continuance or transition into postsecondary. Dual enrollment provides students with college credit so that gives them incentive to continue if they really are interested in the pathway. There’s always students who may not like the pathway after trying it and may want to go a different route. The benefit in these cases is that they were able to rule something out in high school versus college when they’re paying for it. Establishing dual-enrollment opportunities within a pathway is a win for all involved.

It’s drawing on the community — you have those community champions who will step up and make sure that they can connect you to whatever you need.

Carmita Peña

What surprised you the most? What do you know now that you didn’t know at the beginning of this project? 

Jeannae: For me, how many working components would be required to make this successful. Each aspect that you have to think about — the certifications, students being able to apply hands-on experience, the internships, making the connections to purchase equipment, making connections with your local college, and turnover in teachers who are coming through the program. Because you can’t anticipate a lot of that, you learn as you go. As you want the program to improve even more, you have to start thinking about those things. As you start thinking about them, conversations are being had — conversations about improvement and how you can connect it to the community. Then when you connect with those community members, they can grow it even more.

There are more opportunities for our students — more certifications, more demand, and more ways that they can apply these skills to different organizations and industries like law enforcement and firefighting. When we hear aviation, we all think of pilots and airplanes, but our students are flying drones and they can be aviation mechanics. This is taking off in a direction that’s definitely positive — and the demand will determine the opportunities that are going to be necessary, and what’s going to be required of the program and of the working partnerships that we’re going to need to solidify.

Carmita: For me, the surprise was how quickly aviation drew students’ interest. [Former Assistant Principal] Mr. Cardona and [former Woodlake Community Engagement Manager] Ms. Lugo both did an excellent job of promoting it. I’ve seen this before where the staff around the programs are the ones that draw the student interest. If they are passionate about what they do, the kids are going to be interested.

One of the things that I really was surprised about was the certification completions from the students — and how they were able to immediately connect them to things that they could do onsite for other students to see. It’s kind of a self-promoting way to draw more students in — and that’s something we need to really think about in other pathways. So it’s really finding ways that you can incorporate it into the school day where other students have the chance to see things that they’re completing.

Looking ahead: The grand-prize winner announcement and new resources

The Woodlake finalist team currently awaits the announcement of the Rural Tech Project grand-prize winner. Early this fall, the U.S. Department of Education will announce the winner, which will receive an additional $100,000. The challenge is also working with each finalist team to compile and publish lessons learned as a resource for other communities. The teams have all demonstrated that rural communities are powerful centers for educational innovation; their program models can be adapted by other schools across the country to create technology education programs that increase access to careers across industries. 

Sign up for the Rural Tech Project newsletter to receive the winner announcement as well as resources from Woodlake and the other finalist teams.

See lessons learned and resources from the Rural Tech Project teams.

See lessons learned and resources from the Rural Tech Project teams.