CLEARWATER — With the opening of a new aviation academy, students at Clearwater High School soon will be able to graduate with a pilot's license — and a head start in the field of aeronautics and aerospace.
The Clearwater Aeronautical Space Academy, or CASA, will have a soft launch in January, with one class about unmanned aircraft available to students. A full schedule of classes in piloting, engineering, space flight and aeronautical science will be available in the 2014-15 school year through a partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
"We're really excited," principal Keith Mastorides said.
Pinellas has been exploring a partnership with Embry-Riddle for several years, Lisa Wolf, a district spokeswoman, said in an email. She said administrators were having trouble selecting a high school to host the program because they couldn't find a certified teacher who could teach aviation. But Clearwater High's JROTC instructor is a certified pilot and volunteered to teach a class of aviation and aerospace, she said.
Mastorides said the program is a natural fit for Clearwater High. Embry-Riddle has its main campus in Daytona Beach, but operates two satellite campuses in Tampa. The high school started a "wall-to-wall" academy concept last year in which all students take classes in career-themed areas, such as business, science and technology, fine arts and hospitality.
"It's a new way of thinking," Mastorides said of the academies, with the idea that students can earn industry certifications, giving them either a jump-start into college or a path directly to work.
Any student at Clearwater High, including those enrolled in special application programs, can join the new aviation academy. Those who do can earn their pilot's license and up to 30 college credits by the time they graduate.
Three of the proposed classes are high school courses, while the rest are college-level, dual-enrollment classes, Mastorides said. Students will get plenty of hands-on experience, with flight simulators and use of unmanned aircraft.
Embry-Riddle already has a presence in several school districts, including Charlotte, Palm Beach and Okaloosa counties. Last spring, it sought funding from the Florida Legislature to expand its career academy network, citing a growing demand for its graduates. The university also is launching a similar program in January at Pasco County's Sunlake High School.
Nearly 2,000 aviation and aerospace companies operate in Florida, according to Embry-Riddle.
Mastorides said the number of seats and classes offered to students at Clearwater High will be based on the level of interest. And so far, he said, there's been "a ton of interest."
Pinellas also is considering whether to add an aerospace component to Clearwater High's feeder schools — Oak Grove and Clearwater Fundamental middle schools — to give younger students a "jump on it," he said.
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.