A remarkable opportunity for Birmingham

Ruben Morris
Ruben Morris

Today’s guest columnist is Ruben Morris.

Birmingham is sorely lacking when it comes to aviation and aerospace industry recruitment.

Alabama has a rich history with the aviation and aerospace industries.

And most of the large cities in our state are leveraging that history to boost economic development and bring quality jobs to their communities. Mobile has Airbus, Montgomery has Maxwell Air Force Base and Huntsville and Decatur are home to more than a handful of global industry leaders. And that’s on top of the military bases and associated contractors located there.

Birmingham is home to Kaiser Aircraft Industries, which has been in Birmingham since the 1930s and employed around 2,000 at its peak. Today, Kaiser does have a contract to do airline maintenance for Delta. The problem is it doesn’t have the workforce. In fact, folks at Kaiser have told me they could  dramatically expand the Delta contract if they just had the workforce.

Bottom line: we need to be creating a workforce for this industry. Our city could desperately use high-quality, well-paying jobs, yet we’re not taking advantage of an opportunity that’s already here in our laps. Right in front of us. And these are seriously high-quality, high-paying jobs. An airplane mechanic’s salary — with no college degree required— starts at $60,000. Commercial pilots can pull down $200,000.

Speaking of pilots, United Airlines announced recently it needs to hire 5,000 pilots by 2030 and they want at least half of them to be women and people of color. Why? Because less than 1% of commercial pilots are black women. Again, a real, tangible opportunity — not a pipe dream, fantasy or illusion — is right before us. Waiting for us to make our move.

So we are.

I — along with my governing board and industry partners — have decided now’s the time. It’s time to be part of the solution to the structural problems facing the industry — and our city. So we’ve founded the Alabama Aviation and Aerospace High School (AAHS), a free public charter school opening in 2022 dedicated to creating the aviation and aerospace leaders of tomorrow.

As anticipated, our request for a charter was denied by the Birmingham School Board earlier this year. We’ve appealed their decision and a public hearing on our appeal was held on April 21. On Thursday, April 29 at 10 AM the Alabama State Charter Commission will meet in Montgomery to hold a determination hearing and consider awarding a state charter. We want the community to know about this because we want the community to be involved. We want their support. Because AAHS will be a game changer for our children, our community, our city and our state.

First and foremost, our kids deserve access to a high-quality education, something many of them don’t have right now. And we also believe this high-quality education should prepare them for careers that provide far more than just a living wage. They deserve careers that challenge them, reward them and provide opportunity for unlimited growth and achievement.

So we’re not messing around. We’re going to be a direct pipeline into the industry for our students. In fact, AAHS will offer students four distinct pathways into the industry.

First, there’s the private pilot and drone pilot license path. Students on this track will leave high school with their pilot or drone license. We’ve partnered with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) on this curriculum.

Second is the aircraft maintenance path, which will also prepare students for immediate employment. We’ve partnered with Delta Airlines and Kaiser to assist with this course of study.

Third is the aerospace engineering track. Students on this path will leave high school with college credits toward their aerospace engineering degree. Our partner on this program is Tuskegee University.

Finally, there’s the computer science path. We’ve partnered with UAB Department of Criminal Justice’s – Digital Forensics Program on this curriculum and these students will also graduate with college credits and can even be dually enrolled at UAB and AAHS.

We’ve also forged partnerships with Miles College, Alabama State University, Snead State and Jeff State to support our programs and we are currently in partnership talks with Auburn as well.

As you can see, we’re keenly focused on real-world, practical workforce development for companies in our state that are desperately in need of well-trained employees. Our kids will have the experience they need before they leave high school and will be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that await them.

Another major focus of AAHS is diversity, equity, and inclusion. Traditionally, charter schools have been criticized for intentionally siphoning off the top students in struggling high schools, leaving those schools even more emaciated. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re very intentionally reaching into communities of color and inviting all students to come to our school. Because you don’t have to ‘test in’. We’re not merit-based. We want to serve all students of all abilities. Because we believe any child, given the right environment, can learn.

We’re partnering this summer with the Greater Birmingham YMCA to have students come to “Aviation Days” to experience how they will learn at AAHS. We’re also engaged with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama to reach out to children for whom English is a second language. As a free, public high school, we also welcome children with special needs and will offer them all the support services they would receive in a traditional public high school.

In fact, we’ve taken a cue from special education and will provide each of our students with a personalized “Flight Plan”. This plan will resemble an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) used for special education students. These Flight Plans will include clearly defined goals established by the student, their parents or guardians and their academic advisors. Because accountability matters in school, and in the real world, too.

Our students will also be assigned to a “Flight Crew”, a small group of peers and a trusted adult that will serve as each student’s safe space. As a group, they will focus on peer support, empathy, communication, inclusion, social skills and emotional intelligence.

These skills are vital for every child, but we focus on them even more because aerospace and aviation are global industries. Our students will need to respect other cultures, see the world from different perspective and know how to work through differences maturely and respectfully.

Simply put, at AAHS, we will support the whole child. Our kids will receive mentors, play sports, and have student-led clubs and organizations like JROTC and the Civil Air Patrol. Because we’re dedicated to turning our students into well-rounded, well-educated leaders ready to walk out our doors and succeed. Even if it’s not in the aviation or aerospace industries.

Because as much as AAHS will be dedicated to developing a skilled workforce for the aviation and aerospace industries, we’re here to give all students access to a high quality public education. One that will prepare them for whatever career path they choose. Because our kids deserve it and our communities need it. We’ve failed our children for far too long. At AAHS, we believe it’s time to give them what they need to soar.

AAHS will open in the fall of 2022. The school has plans to open at the Southern Museum of Flight. The school is currently accepting intent to enroll forms from students who will be entering the ninth grade in the fall of 2022. For more information, please visit alaahs.org.

Ruben Morris is a Birmingham native and a graduate of Shades Valley High School. He received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History from Morehouse College and a Master of Arts in Social Change from Iliff School of Theology at the University of Denver. Ruben is an Assistant Campus Pastor at the Worship Center Christian Church Bessemer Campus and a member of the 100 Black Men of Greater Birmingham. His wife Jonta Morris is the Founder and CEO of Legacy Prep, Birmingham’s first public Charter School.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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5 thoughts on “A remarkable opportunity for Birmingham”

  1. Ruben, I Love this article! What reason did the BHM School Board give for denying the charter application?

  2. How many examples will it take for voters to realize that it was a huge mistake to give government a monopoly on education? Can vouchers possibly be worse? Can parents possibly be more destructive than school boards?

    1. Your questions are truly fundamental. Real education begins at home with parents. It is sad when parents give in to the public education systems and let them take over. PTA once counted. It needs to continue and be more engaged.

  3. Very interesting, well-written, and thought-provoking article.

    Perhaps someone from the Birmingham Board of Education could write a column to explain their point-of-view.

  4. Thoughts like these are the kind that can advance and improve a city. They are considerate, very practical, and potentially very useful, and in so many ways. We need more, and I should add everywhere! Think of this as how to move from the position of ‘following,’ to the one of ‘leading,’ being ‘users’ less and ‘helpers’ more.

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