New aerospace classroom opens for Hillsboro high schoolers
The Hillsboro School District's newest career-technical classroom isn't where you might expect.
On Thursday, April 7, the Oregon Aerospace Careers for Everyone (O-ACE) classroom officially opened at the Hillsboro Airport.
The program aims to inspire and prepare high school students to pursue careers in aerospace, which officials say is especially important given the current and projected shortage of pilots, engineers and other professionals in that industry.
Officials referenced a 2018 study by Boeing, which projected that there would be a 200,000-person shortage in pilots and mechanics — with 400,000 employees needed overall — in the aerospace industry within the next 20 years.
This dire situation has resulted in many investments in career pathways and local options, including the announcement of a new pilot training program through Alaska Airlines at the nearby Hillsboro Aero Academy.
The O-ACE program is a separate but related effort organized through the school district, Portland Community College, the Oregon International Air Show, and other private sector partners.
The program itself has been offered to Hillsboro high schoolers since fall 2020. That's when the new classroom at the Hillsboro Airport was supposed to open.
But COVID-19 put a damper on plans to operate out of that space — which finally came together thanks to a massive volunteer effort and coordination through several public-private agencies.
Students have been receiving largely remote instruction while awaiting the opening of the classroom, though they first started to move into the space back in September. But now that in-person instruction has fully resumed, educators expect the demand for the program will only grow.
"We aim to have a throughput of about 50 students entering the program each year," said Sheri Fisher, the teacher of the aerospace class. "We're going to outgrow this space, too. We're the only satellite classroom in the district, where students actually leave their school campus to come to this classroom. … It really shows the dedication of the students."
The layout of the classroom itself inspires students to see the potential of their future careers. They can look right out the window at the planes taking off and landing outside.
Hillsboro School District officials say this kind of career-technical training and exposure is a key part of preparing students for successful careers after high school.
"For our students to have options when they graduate, it's the most important thing we can do for them," said Superintendent Mike Scott.
Students say the program has really boosted their passion for aerospace science and the opportunity to pursue a career in the field.
"I started liking airplanes when I was like 8 or 10," said Ivette Alonso-Garcia, a sophomore at Liberty High School who's been in the program for over a year. "I started learning the basics, like the phonetic alphabet. When I saw a program for 'Intro to Aerospace Sciences,' I was so excited. I asked my counselor about applying."
When she found out she was accepted, she said she "screamed so loud that my mom came in from the other room."
Alonso-Garcia said she's also excited to be a woman of color heading into this industry, which has traditionally been dominated by men.
"I am really blessed to be a person of color and a woman, (which) we need more (of) in aviation," she said. "When I first got into the class, I was shocked to see only males. But that didn't stop me from overcoming my fears and pursuing my passion for this career."
That lack of representation Alonso-Garcia spoke of is why the O-ACE program will make a concerted effort to attract "non-traditional candidates," meaning women and people of color.
"This program was collaboratively designed with Hillsboro students in mind, to prepare them for a future in successful aviation careers," said Katy Ho, vice president of academic affairs at Portland Community College. "A future … where the faces you see in the cockpit more closely resemble the community they serve."
In fact, the Oregon International Air Show, which returns to the Hillsboro Airport on May 20 following a three-year hiatus, will feature an all-female event. All the pilots, announcers and other performers will be women, and the event will include a tribute to pioneering women in the industry.
The opening of the classroom caps a years-long effort to make this youth pipeline a reality.
More than 1,800 hours of work were donated by volunteers to build the new classroom out of the former KUIK radio station, said Judy Willey, former executive director of the Oregon International Air Show and current board member of the charitable foundation that was set up by the organization in 2018.
Much of the volunteer effort was led by Don Suhrbier, whom Willey calls "Mr. Hillsboro" for his time spent on this and many other volunteer-based projects in the community.
"While the O-ACE team was busy working on all of the educational details, Don was working with the architects, the contractors, the construction team, the painters, the electrician, the city, the port inspectors and every other person needed to get the remodel job done," Willey said. "Don really is like the Energizer Bunny — sharing his talent to make a difference."
Suhrbier was given a present in recognition of his efforts: an ornate desk clock with a plaque that recognized his outstanding efforts.
Presenters at the grand opening event said that this is just one part of a larger effort to reshape this part of the Hillsboro Airport into an educational complex that will provide more pipelines to careers in aerospace and more public events like the annual air show.
"This is a high-wage, high-demand job right here in our community," said Chris Barber, another board member for the charitable foundation. "This part of the airport is expected to grow as an education hub."
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