Students could not put down their cellphones when they walked into Sterling Aviation High School earlier this month. They took video of themselves walking through the sleek, three-story building, complete with a faux-runway painted along first-floor hallways.
But while the two new gymnasiums, observation deck with views of nearby Hobby Airport and collaborative learning spaces sparked interest among students, the full-sized airplane hangar stole the show.
The Houston Chronicle reports the new Sterling High School may be the only high school in the United States with its own private airplane hangar.
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At 7,100 square feet, the dedicated space will soon house two single-engine planes, which used to bake in the sun as students studied their parts at the old campus next door. Flight simulators will be brought over from the old campus in coming weeks, and 17 engines totaling about $50,000 are mounted to movable stands across the space.
A handful of schools in places like Iowa, Nevada, New York City, Michigan, Massachusetts and Ohio have opened aviation technical schools at regional airports, but few, if any, have their own independent airplane hangars financed by public school districts.
Houston Independent School District leaders said building the on-site hangar, which is not adjacent to a runway of any kind, was more of a necessity than a luxury.
Justin Fuentes, principal at Sterling, said having the hangar on campus means the school is not at the mercy of aviation companies or leases.
"We wanted something sustainable," Fuentes said. "When we've partnered with businesses in the past, some have ended up failing and we'd get cut off."
Sterling has housed a pilot program for at least 10 years and introduced an aviation mechanic program last year. About 200 students are enrolled in both aviation programs this year. The school's magnet aviation programs are available to students districtwide.
The new Sterling High School, which opened Jan. 4, is the first comprehensive high school financed by Houston ISD's 2012 bond and the first built in the district in nearly 16 years. The bond calls for the renovation or rebuilding of 40 schools, including 29 high schools. Sterling's new 237,000-square-foot campus, which can serve about 1,800 students, will replace the original brick school built in 1965.
The school's price tag -- $67.5 million -- came in below the district's $72 million budget for building the new Sterling High and furnishing it with equipment and technology. The construction cost alone was about $49 million. According to a 2014 Texas Comptroller study, a high school that serves about 2,000 students should cost about $53.4 million to build, adjusting for inflation and regional price differences.
"I think it's important, the neighborhood needs something great," Fuentes said. "Former bonds have come and gone, and not much has changed around here. We're the farthest-south school in HISD, and you get the assumption that it's forgotten. But this proves HISD and the city care. Now, this is a showpiece in the neighborhood that elevates the whole area."
Rev. A.L. Hickman, a special education co-teacher at Sterling and pastor of the nearby New Commandment Christian Fellowship Church, agreed.
"It's like a rose sticking out of a garden," Hickman said of the new school. "Every week my parishioners would ask about it. No one in this community doesn't know the school is here now, and they're so grateful to have it."
He saw dozens of alumni and curious community members driving around the new campus Jan. 2.
Two days later, a teacher walked four students through issues that could arise on one of the hangar's 17 engines. Older students will be tasked with studying the engines, breaking them down and rebuilding them.
Armonnie Neal, a 16-year-old sophomore at the school, said she was eager to enroll in the aviation program even though she hopes to eventually become a nurse.
"I've never seen some of these engines before," she said, looking around the hangar. "It's important for the school to have this. People want to be pilots and mechanics, and having this space will show us more about airplanes. It's so big, and it looks so much more professional."