A vintage Piper Cub airplane hangs from the cafeteria’s ceiling. Down the hall, a helicopter sits in a lobby-sized area. A nearby office showcases the military pilot career of the office-dweller. An oversized room at one end of the school holds stacks of under-construction model airplanes and tools.
It has the feel of an aviation company’s headquarters.
But look closer.
There’s a high school student reading a book behind the helicopter. In a classroom, two freshman girls are dressed in Greek costumes as they lead their English class. In front of the school, parents drop off their children.
It’s the combination of aviation with a more traditional high school curriculum that attracts students to West Michigan Aviation, a charter high school in Grand Rapids in front of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
Less than 4 years old, the school has more than 400 students and uses aviation across all content areas. Its focus is on the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.The school doesn’t offer band or many sports.
“We want kids who like to tinker,” said Patrick Cwayna, the school’s CEO and the former longtime principal of East Grand Rapids High School. “We want to fill a niche.”
Students wear uniforms, and the school has seven-hour days.
Freshmen take electives that introduce them to aviation, and they specialize as they get older.
School officials see themselves as developing a talent pool for aviation and engineering schools.
In an English class, students might study flying-related poems. During a visit last spring, an introduction-to-aviation class was watching newsreel footage of airplane dogfights. Students can earn rewards of actual flight time.
“We can do so much for students because they are coming for a purpose,” Cwayna said. “We want students to succeed and go on to further education.”
The school was founded by Dick DeVos, one of the wealthiest men in Michigan, former gubernatorial candidate and nationally prominent Republican.
Before running for office, DeVos, and his wife, Betsy, had led a drive to get a voucher system approved by Michigan voters. He’d been active in the push for charter school expansion for several years.
“We really wanted to figure out how can we expand quality education options to all children, especially those who can’t afford traditional private schools,” DeVos told the Free Press.
Then came DeVos’ failed run for governor against Jennifer Granholm in 2006.
His wife encouraged him to stay involved and pair his passion for flying — he’s a jet aircraft and helicopter pilot — with education.
The school was hatched.
“It’s not about just training kids for aviation; it’s broader than that,” he said. “It’s a hook to get them involved in the school.”
DeVos began to put his school together. The school is self-managed but hired a firm to handle human resources.
“I chose to go the nonprofit route because I got tired of always having the criticism that everything I do was about profits,” DeVos said. “This school has cost me money. We’re west Michigan folks, and our goal is to impact kids in west Michigan.”
DeVos is proud of the diversity at the school: It is 78% male, 22% female — 67% white, 33% minority. There is a nationwide push to add more females and minorities to science and technology fields, where they are underrepresented.
DeVos also has brought in high-profile speakers such as retired four-star general and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Former President George W. Bush spoke at a fund-raising dinner in May.
The night of the school’s first open house, DeVos broke into a large smile as he drove into the school building’s parking lot to see a line around the building.
“I had no idea what to expect,” DeVos said. “To see that many people interested in it was amazing.”