I was her first scheduled appointment on her first day in her new position as assistant superintendent of Secondary for the School Board of Highlands County. I had not met Dr. Nia Campbell prior to this meeting. I was meeting to brief her on the Highlands Aviation and Aerospace Academy and to let her know we were going to move forward to develop a partnership with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). I needed to send a formal letter of intent to ERAU within the next few days if we were going to be able to acquire their support for the second semester in January.

There were many thoughts going through my mind as I waited outside her office. What does she know about aviation? What is her perspective on Career and Technical education courses? What will she be like to work with since she will be my primary link to the School Board?

Over the last few years as our academy program gained national recognition as a best practice, we were getting frequent requests for further information on how to build a community program. We are very happy to share our ideas and experiences. Many times, requests turned into a Zoom meeting or a phone call to discuss specifics of a certain situation. To provide a more efficient manner to help, we had begun to put together a basic guide of the common questions that could be sent and then follow up later.

Since the guide was almost complete, I thought, “why not modify it and put together a summary for Dr. Campbell that would contain the academy program history, what we do, who is involved and what we see in the future?” So, with summary in a three-ring binder in hand, I entered her office.

After the pleasantries and giving her the binder, I asked her what experience she had with high school aviation programs. She answered she had an academy at the high school she just left as principal. Big relief for me as I felt she understood the “language” of high school aviation programs. From there the meeting went very well. We are fortunate to have Dr. Campbell join our school district.

Another positive outcome was the process of putting the academy summary together. An important section of the summary identifies our community partners and the bios of our academy team. Once I put all of them together it was eye-opening. This past year is one we would like to forget. Our academy program continued to function well even with all the challenges due to the COVID pandemic. It is testament to the strength and commitment of our community partners.

All the following community partners and academy instructors have a commitment to help create the best options and opportunities for our students. The Sebring Regional Airport led by Executive Director Mike Willingham; The School Board of Highlands County led by Dr. Brenda Longshore; EAA Chapter 1240 led by Dale Huffman; The Ray Foundation of Naples, Florida led by Chuck Ahearn; Lockwood Aviation led by CEO Phil Lockwood; Career Source Heartland led by CEO Donna Doubleday; AIrCam owners and youth advocates retired NASA Astronaut Musgrave and EAA Chapter 1240 member Dr. Ron Owen; Sebring Regional Airport FBO manager Jason Ali; Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, providing the extensive high school aviation curriculum. Also airport businesses that have provided internships and job shadowing opportunities for our students: Tecnam Aircraft North American Headquarters; Carter Aircraft, a FAA Certified Repair Facility; JB Engines, builder of aircraft engines; and the Highlands Radio Control club.

In addition to the community partners, we have an incredibly talented and experienced instructional Academy team. The build aircraft team is led by Lake Placid High School teacher Mike Halpern with Bob Ohlinger, Bill Pisarillo, Charlie Dye and AOPA instructor Vikki Greenleaf. I get to be the “orchestra conductor” of this incredible team and I am very honored and humbled to be a part of it.

Saying thank you is not enough to all who are supporting this effort and the many community members that have donated books, equipment and other aviation related equipment. We appreciate the investment our community has made to create the options and opportunities for our youth. Our youth are 25% of our population and 100% of our future. We have survived 2020, and we are looking forward a better year in 2021.

John Rousch is the director of the Highlands Aviation and Aerospace Academy, a community partnership supporting youth aviation education. He can be reached at johnrousch73@gmail.com, call or text 863-273-0522.