Meet the 'Fly Boys' of Memphis, the Future of American Education

What two teenagers from a struggling school district, bitten by the rocketry bug, can teach us about creating a new generation of scientists and engineers

rocketkids-2.jpgWesley Carter (center) and Darius Hooker (center-left) make final adjustments to their rocket before the launch while a younger teammate watches. (Brian Resnick)

With bright pops and trailing screams, hand-built rockets fly toward the sun in graceful (occasionally precarious) arcs. High school students from across the country huddle together anxiously, waiting for their turns to compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC). The task is not easy: Each rocket has to propel two eggs to an altitude of 800 feet and return them safely to the ground within 43 to 47 seconds. The tension subsides only when competitors hear the faint crack from their rocket at the peak of flight, indicating the parachute has deployed and the cargo has a chance of survival. Some rockets perform exceptionally; others misfire. But with every "three, two, one... launch!" the crowd's attention grows intensely focused. Rocket launches, however many dozen in a row, do not stop being cool.

It's a warm but thankfully unhumid day in The Plains, Virginia, about 45 miles west of Washington, D.C. Wesley Carter and Darius Hooker, two high school seniors from Wooddale High School in Memphis, Tennessee, are making final adjustments -- compensating for a two-knot breeze and low humidity -- to their white 90 centimeter rocket.

"It's pretty tense right now; I'm just trying to hope everything goes according to plan," Carter tells me minutes before the launch.

It has taken three years of planning, drafting plans on computer software, and meticulous trial-and-error for these Memphis teens to compete against America's top 100 model rocketry teams. And they almost didn't make it to the contest.

After they beat out hundreds of other teams in a qualifier round, Carter and Hooker did not have the $7,500 needed to come to Washington and compete. A newspaper editorial inspired a local media blitz, nicknaming them "the fly boys," and members of the Memphis community rallied the only team from the Mid-South to qualify for the prestigious contest.

For students who develop a singular passion, a straight line connecting education to the workforce makes sense.

It was a welcome bit of good news for the Memphis City School district, which often doesn't receive any. The area has an uneasy history, fraught with racial tensions and extreme class divides. Most recently, the district announced that up to 150 of its teachers are being recommended for firing due to poor performance. Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper, reports that 20 percent of the districts' 6,400 teachers scored "below expectations" or "significantly below expectations" on their evaluations.

Additionally, there isn't much good news about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in America. On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science, 70 percent of America eighth graders scored below proficiency.

And American industries are worried about their future workers. According to a Aerospace Industries Association survey, 23 percent of its employees will be eligible to retire in two years, but "sufficient numbers of young people are not prepared for or pursuing math and science careers to replace the workforce."

In this light, Carter and Hooker represent a rare success for two struggling systems: They are from one the poorest metropolitan areas in the country, in one of the worst school systems in the state, but they are pursuing careers in a field that many people their age have discounted. And they are excelling. What counts for their success?

***

Carter grew up in the shadow of Memphis International airport. The neighborhood was rough, he tells me, which pushed his interests indoors. "They would make the kids fight -- and I really didn't like that," he says. "I stepped away from everyone, stayed on the computer a lot. I just became a computer geek."

But when he did venture out, he was able to witness something that kindled a sense of awe in him. "What really inspired me was walking outside and just seeing an airplane take off," he says.

Hooker tells a similar story, growing up near the high school in a neighborhood that became increasingly rough. "I was always the hands-on type of person," Hooker says. "I was always the person that tore up the Xbox just to see what's inside."

To its credit, Memphis City Schools offer several "optional" programs in fields like aviation, engineering, and health care, and place no geographic restrictions on which students can attend them. For Carter and Hooker, Wooddale's four-year aviation program (the only one of its kind in the Mid-South) was an immediate draw. Alongside traditional class work, they trained for private pilots' licenses and studied aviation and rocket science.

In the face of the recession and declining numbers of skilled technical workers, a key piece of the Obama administration's education plan is a renewed emphasis on Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, just like the one Carter and Hooker attended at Wooddale. Today's CTE programs are not the vocational curricula of the past, which focused solely on trade education. They include college prep as well, giving students more options after graduation. To fund them, the Education Department is calling for the renewal and retooling of the Perkins Act. The act was last renewed in 2006, under President Bush, but Obama wants to push it further, calling for increased collaboration between high schools, colleges, industries, and states.

"It seems very clear that when you give young people an opportunity like at Wooddale High School to engage in this kind of learning, it turns something on," James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education, tells me. "I truly believe this, even though I can't point to empirical evidence that's research based."

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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