Irma Rodriguez, a freshman from the farming community of Salinas, had struggled in school for years — academically, socially, every which way. But when she enrolled in her local alternative high school, things took an upward trajectory. Literally.

With help from her teachers at the Bob Hoover Academy at the Monterey County Office of Education, Irma has learned to fly.

“At first it was really scary because I’d never even been in an airplane. I was really nervous and scared to look down,” said Irma, 14. “But the flight instructor made me feel safe. … I’d never considered working in aviation, but this program has opened my eyes to what’s possible.”

In addition to catching up with her academic workload, Irma is on track to earn her pilot’s license. Her goal is to graduate from high school, hone her flight skills in the Air Force and then launch a career as a commercial pilot — a path she never knew existed before enrolling at Bob Hoover.

Bob Hoover Academy, named for the famed World War II fighter pilot and air show aviator, is among the few schools of its kind in California. Operated in partnership with the Monterey County Office of Education, the school offers standard high school classes like English and history as well as lessons in flying and airplane mechanics and maintenance.

In the process, students get hands-on lessons in math and physics, learn skills such as goal setting and perseverance, and gain something that’s all too often elusive for struggling students: motivation.

“We have students that haven’t done well in comprehensive schools for a variety of issues, but when they come to Bob Hoover, their attendance improves, they become more engaged, and we see a forward trajectory,” said Nubia Padilla, the office’s principal of alternative programs. “They get an opportunity to try something new and to really launch a dream.”

Bob Hoover Academy stems from an after-school program in Salinas called Every Kid Can Fly, which was started in 2014 by air show pilot and Salinas native Sean Tucker. Tucker wanted to give local students — particularly those who were struggling with trauma or other hardships — the thrill of flight and a solid career path.

The program, which operated at a local alternative school, proved to be so popular that the Monterey County Office of Education stepped in to help it expand. The result is the Bob Hoover Academy, an accredited alternative high school that offers the full range of high school courses and aviation curriculum created by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, regular sessions with a psychotherapist for every student, and college and career advising.

“It really does take a village to raise a child so when we saw the opportunity for this public-private partnership we knew it could go a long way in reducing opportunity gaps for our students,” said Deneen Guss, Monterey County superintendent. “We are all about creating more opportunities that could lead to a very bright future for so many of our students.” 

Students start flying right away with a licensed pilot, swooping and soaring over the Salinas Valley, the coastal hills, Pinnacles National Park and the Monterey Peninsula. From thousands of feet up, they see everything from whales in Monterey Bay to the brilliant fields of lettuce to their own homes.

When they’re 16, they’re eligible to fly solo, but not before many months of training in a flight simulator and with certified flight instructors. The three-classroom school, which is located in a hangar near the Salinas Municipal Airport, owns several small airplanes for students to practice on, including a World War II-era T6 warbird. 

The school, which enrolls about 20 students, is mostly funded by the county office of education, which rents the facilities and provides the teachers and educational materials. Private donations cover the cost of operating and maintaining the airplanes. The partnership allows the school to offer aviation classes — which ordinarily cost thousands of dollars — free to students, nearly all of whom are low-income.

That’s one reason Tucker and the county office of education have championed the program.

“We grow much of the nation’s produce in the Salinas Valley, but there’s a big discrepancy between the owners of the land and the workers of the land. Oftentimes the workers of the land don’t have the same access to resources, especially aviation, which is typically male-dominated and doesn’t have a lot of people of color,” said Victoria Sorensen, the office’s senior director of alternative education. 

By learning to fly, she said, students “learn how to take their lives in their own hands, take control and be successful. … It’s not just about helping them become aviators. It’s a metaphor for life.”

Ultimately, learning to fly is a way to keep students firmly planted to the ground, said Bert Cool, the school’s director of operations. The thrill of flight comes with months and months of hard work and preparation, plus time spent on academics and with the school psychotherapist, which will serve them regardless of whether they pursue careers in aviation.

“They’re up in the air for a little bit, but they still have to come back to reality, take care of responsibilities they have here on earth,” Cool said. “The flying is a great escape, but this program gives them other support, as well: all these people around them to help them accomplish whatever their goals are.”

Several Bob Hoover alumni have gone on to professional careers in aviation, including one who’s now an airplane mechanic for Federal Express. 

Bob Hoover Academy is not the only alternative school in California to take an innovative approach to engaging students and offering them hands-on career skills. Mountain View High School in San Jacinto, in Riverside County, offers an aquaponics and sustainable living program that teaches students about water, agriculture, weather, and solar, wind and geothermal energy. Students design, create, research and implement aquaponics in classrooms as well as outdoors.

At Paloma Creek High School near the central California town Atascadero, students work with community partners like local construction firms to design, build and sell a structure, such as a shed, every year. Students learn basic construction skills and use the money from the sale to buy materials for the next year’s project. They also take field trips to construction sites, meeting business owners and learning about the building trades.   

Each year, the California Continuation Education Association honors about three dozen of the state’s 430 alternative schools for unique programs that help students succeed after traditional schools failed.

For Irma, Bob Hoover Academy was a relief after her previous school. She wasn’t sure what to expect when she enrolled, but she knew she needed a change. She was behind academically, had conflicts with her peers and generally did not like going to school.

“There was so much drama at my old school. But coming here was a whole different experience, with the small classes and everything else,” she said. “Now I look forward to doing something fun every day. Just being given the opportunity to do the things I’ve been able to do gives me the motivation to want to come to school, to put in the work.”

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