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L.A. Unified aviation training center gets $100,000 donation

The mechanics vocational school had been facing closure or relocation after 40 years at Van Nuys Airport because of budget cuts and a rent increase. The gift will keep it going at least a year.

February 11, 2013|By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times
  • Isac Ramos, 23, center, poses with Betty and Si Robin after a news conference to announce that the owners of Sensor Systems, which makes aircraft antenna, will donate $100,000 to the Aviation Center. Ramos will soon graduate from the two-year program.
Isac Ramos, 23, center, poses with Betty and Si Robin after a news conference… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Single-engine Cessnas and a former Coast Guard HH-52 helicopter will continue to line one of the most unique classrooms within the Los Angeles Unified School District, thanks to a $100,000 donation announced Monday.

The North Valley Occupational Center-Aviation Center had been facing closure or relocation after 40 years at Van Nuys Airport because of budget cuts and a rent increase.

In recent weeks, the vocational school — which has produced thousands of mechanics — gained some high-powered backers, including L.A. Councilman and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti.

Now the owners of the largest aircraft antenna manufacturer in the United States have contributed $100,000 to keep the center in place for at least another year while district officials negotiate a new lease with Los Angeles World Airports. The current rent is about $12,000 a month.

"This center is very important to our family, our business and our community," said Si Robin, owner and chairman of Sensor Systems Inc., who along with his wife made the donation to the school. "We make every antenna on every plane in these hangars, but the students are the ones who keep the airplanes running."

The center has about 75 students enrolled in the two-year course — nearly half of what it had before budget cuts eliminated night classes — and prepares students for Federal Aviation Administration certification.

"It's one of the diamonds of the [Career Technical Education] program," said Andres Ameigeiras, an administrator of L.A. Unified's Adult and Technical Career Division. "There's nothing like being hands-on in your own airport."

Students on Monday stood under the wing of an old U.S. Air Force T-33 jet trainer as Robin and Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Panorama City) joined L.A. Unified board member Nury Martinez in praising the center.

The program allows students to get real-life experience while being exposed to the job opportunities waiting for them upon graduation, Martinez said.

Jorge Arteaga is one of those students. His interest in aerospace science was piqued when he participated in Canoga Park High School's Air Force ROTC program, but he wasn't interested in pursuing a college degree.

"You can do a lot in today's world with a vocational degree," the 21-year-old said. "But counselors don't mention trade schools."

The donation will allow Arteaga to finish the program this spring at the airport, where students can run powerful engines and taxi planes — something they wouldn't be able to do in a regular school setting.

"That noise is fairly common here," instructor Michael Phillips said. "We wouldn't be able to do much of that anywhere else because of the sound complaints."

The aviation industry is suffering from a shortage of qualified, entry-level mechanics, Phillips said. And at $2,400, the program is one of the few that can offer students an affordable career path.

"Our first-time pass rate for the FAA certification exam is at 94%," Phillips said. "There are other good programs in the area, but this one is premier."

If a proposed $1-a-year lease is accepted by Los Angeles World Airports, the aviation industry would be the better for it, Cardenas said.

Without such specialized and technical education, "we might see the artificial collapse of an industry because it doesn't have the support it needs to thrive," Cardenas said.

dalina.castellanos@latimes.com

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