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Speaking the same language

Aviation is a great equalizer at this NYC school

It is a typical high school in between classes: There’s a crush of young people heading to their next assignment and the volume of chatter is a low roar. The language is a mix of English and Spanish and the students sport all manner of fashion and hair styles.
Photography by David Tulis
Zoomed image
You Can Fly high school STEM curriculum teacher, pilot, and Mooney Bravo aircraft owner Jonas De Leon instructs students at Gregorio Luperon High School in New York City, February 6, 2023. Photo by David Tulis.

But one group stands out. Here at Gregorio Luperón High School for Science and Mathematics in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, or simply “The Heights,” a lucky group of students is wearing the uniform of the school’s aviation program, a baby blue polo shirt or—even better—an airline pilot’s style shirt with epaulets.

Principal Yecenia Cardoza Delarosa is the force behind the program and the uniforms. “We want the students to experience everything in the best possible way. The uniforms, the students have to earn it; it shows pride in themselves,” she said.

Empowerment school

Founded in 1994 to serve Spanish-speaking students who are new to this country, Gregorio Luperón is “a safe and welcoming school where students feel inspired to learn,” according to New York City school surveys. New programs in aviation and robotics, launched in 2018, expand the school’s offerings in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In the dedicated classrooms in the modern, open-space school, students learn the fundamentals of flight by constructing hot air balloons made of tissue paper, “rockets” made of rubber balloons, and model airplanes made from balsawood; some 90 students are taking part in the AOPA You Can Fly curriculum designed to encourage students to consider a career as a pilot. There are Redbird simulators, including a helicopter, and students gather in groups to flight plan and make weight and balance calculations.

YOu Can FLy

Students in the program help each other calculate weight and balance and distance  for hypothetical flights. Principal Yecenia Cardoza Delarosa is an enthusiastic  champion of the aviation program at her  high school. 
Students fly a simulator along the Hudson River Corridor. Jonas De Leon owns a Mooney M20M Bravo TLS. 
Jonas De Leon delights in flying along the Hudson River Corridor. Jonas De Leon was instrumental in bringing the AOPA You Can Fly curriculum to his high school where he has been a math and science teacher for nearly 20 years.

Situated along the Harlem River, Gregorio Luperón is a school where 100 percent of the 540 students are recent Latino immigrants, representing 19 different countries. It is one of the first public, private, or charter schools in the United States to participate in the AOPA-created four-year STEM aviation curriculum. There are now more than 400 schools across the nation utilizing the program. Gregorio Luperón was the second school in the nation to use the AOPA program and it is in great part because of math and science teacher Jonas De Leon. A pilot since 1993 and native of the Dominican Republic (where many of the students are also from), De Leon realized he had a responsibility to share his passion.

For years, De Leon didn’t tell his students he was a pilot. He didn’t want to sound like he was bragging, he said, but when his students eventually found out, “they were impressed and asked me many questions,” he said. One of his graduates came back to the school and told him the high school had not prepared him for the possibilities in engineering, specifically aviation. “I thought, how selfish of me that I had not shared with students that I am a pilot.” That former student now flies for Delta. De Leon now proudly shares his stories about flying, in hopes that other students might choose to become pilots themselves.

“My life is pretty much their life,” De Leon said. “They can see me as an example of what is possible.”

De Leon said teaching the course makes him feel like a new teacher again. The class meets daily, and his students can return after school and on Saturdays to practice flying the simulators. The hands-on activities give them a chance to compete to their fullest potential, De Leon said.

Before the class, his students didn’t know about career options in aviation or steps to become a pilot, or even how to get to the airport. “It’s piqued their curiosity,” De Leon said.

Show the possibilities

De Leon discovered AOPA’s You Can Fly curriculum in 2016 after reading about it in this magazine. “We learned about the great need for pilots, and I got the conversation started,” he said. He attended the program demonstration at AOPA headquarters in 2018. He not only convinced the school system to invest in it but convinced several of his fellow educators to become pilots.

“Aviation is my passion,” he said. “And I knew it is another entry point for our students to become excited about STEM programs. We will guide our students; we are excited to be riding this wave.”

Selling his school principal Delarosa was easy; she’s a passionate educator with a background in science. Dynamic and charismatic, she believes in promoting her school and her students. Covering the walls throughout the school are photos of student ceremonies, awards, and group activities—and she is in every one. In her nine years as principal, Delarosa has been instrumental in raising the funding for the programs in aviation and robotics. The school secured $2.7 million from the New York City council and $2.5 million from then NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I knew the potential,” she said. “I could see the windows and doors opening. And of course, we owe a great deal to AOPA.”

“She is the reason we have this program,” said De Leon. “In a school system there are two types of principals: the administrator or the leader. Yecenia is a leader. She recognizes that every member of her team, aside from their educational training, brings other sets of skills and experience that can be utilized to enrich and expand the educational experience of the students. Being a leader requires having vision, and because Yecenia is a leader, I was able to propose to her the idea of creating an aviation program in the school.”

Participants in AOPA’s program are more representative of what society looks like than the industry itself. Of the more than 16,000 students enrolled in the AOPA program across the country, 25 percent are female, and 51 percent are minorities. That’s compared to 6 percent of pilots who are female and 12 percent who are minorities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The first year, De Leon was happily surprised at the number of girls who signed up; today female students often outnumber males. “One of our goals is to get more females in engineering and math,” said De Leon.

Flying the corridor

De Leon first owned a Beechcraft Sundowner and then a Mooney M20. Soon after the successful first year of the partnership with AOPA, PBS interviewed him and reported on the program. Things were very positive, but in December 2018, De Leon was flying his son, his girlfriend, and her son, and the Mooney experienced engine trouble. He was forced to land on a golf course in Paramus, New Jersey. No one was hurt, but the aircraft was destroyed. De Leon, however, was most concerned about how this event would affect the program and the school. He refused to speak with reporters and kept his head down until the NTSB exonerated him from any culpability in the accident. The press applauded him for keeping everyone safe.

“I was very concerned about any negative publicity for my school,” De Leon said. “But it turned out great and there was actually a lot of positive publicity.”

Today he owns a Mooney M20M Bravo TLS that he keeps hangared at Hudson Valley Regional Airport (POU), about an hour’s drive from his home in Washington Heights. While he flies his airplane to many places—including the Dominican Republic—his favorite flight is the Hudson River Corridor, his “backyard,” where he can see his New York City apartment.

The very first student who graduated from the AOPA program at Gregorio Luperón completed a college aviation program and is now working as a first officer for JetBlue.“Flying alongside the New York City skyline is an incomparable experience. There is nothing like gazing down upon such iconic sights as the Chrysler Building and One World Trade Center. The places that look so majestic from the ground maintain that majesty when seen from the air,” he said. “Their singularity is transformed when you can see just how much beauty and diversity is packed into such a small strip of land. And if you become fatigued from taking it all in, one just needs to look to the right to see the vastly different, but equally impressive, soaring cliffs of the Palisades on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. These rugged cliffs rise up and look across to the city, challenging the New York City skyline, and holding their own against that sparkling behemoth in a way that only the natural world could.”

The view from his Mooney also shows the massive diversity of the nation’s famous city, and De Leon proudly especially enjoys flying around the Statue of Liberty. He recognizes the opportunities life in the United States offers.

“This is a poor area, a working-class area,” he said of Washington Heights. “Education can take you out of poverty. It is the elevator out of poverty. It is my job to let these kids know the possibilities, to see what is accessible, to visualize it for themselves. Maybe they have had a common belief that being a pilot is some kind of superhuman power. We expose them to what they can be, they can see it, they can imagine it.”

The very first student who graduated from the AOPA program at Gregorio Luperón completed a college aviation program and is now working as a first officer for JetBlue. “What is impressive is that he is a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic who never thought that his childhood dream could ever become true,” said De Leon.

“Attending my high school changed his life forever. His dream became a reality and now at only 26 years old, he is the co-pilot of a passenger airplane flying from New York to his homeland.”

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Julie Walker
Julie Summers Walker
AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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