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2019 Prize Winner

Derek Rowe

Aviation Maintenance

McGavock High School, TN

“The blossoming talent I’ve witnessed in our young men and women has been life-changing. For me it’s a reminder of the time in my life when someone believed in me, those times when someone said, ‘You can do this. Here are the tools.’”

Ever since he rode in a helicopter at 11 years old, Derek Rowe knew he wanted a life working on planes. But Rowe, who grew up in rural Wales in a family of nine, said “it seemed an impossible dream” for a child from a low-income background.

Rowe joined the British Army as soon as he was old enough and worked his way up to become a helicopter pilot and mechanic. After 17 years in the service, Rowe moved to the U.S., where a heart attack and triple bypass surgery led him to reevaluate his life goals. He decided he wanted to pay it forward, and help other young people pursue aviation careers.

Rowe became a teacher at McGavock High School in Nashville, Tennessee, resurrecting a nearly defunct aviation program and growing it to serve 150 primarily low-income students each year. Rowe’s dedication to his students springs from his own experience, in which the only way to pursue an aviation career was to join the army or pay high tuition at the post-secondary level. Students in Rowe’s classes, however, graduate with pilot licenses, dual-enrollment credits and scholarships for further study. In the classroom and on field trips, they interface with industry professionals from Delta, Boeing and other major companies. Beyond attending the U.S. Air Forces air show, Aviation Nation, Rowe’s students serve on its board, gaining experience in strategic planning and corporate engagement.

Each day in the shop, students learn by doing in a project-based curriculum that integrates math and science with aviation mechanics. In one project, students planned and executed a simulated around-the-world flight, researching navigation, airspace permissions, fueling needs, weather patterns, crew schedules, visas, inoculations and maintenance and repair. Students also build and restore airplanes, including an $85,000 aircraft capable of flying at 10,000 feet and 200 miles per hour. They also teach their fellow students, including home-schooled students and middle-school girls, through targeted outreach.

Rowe’s first cohort of students graduated in May 2019. Of 32 seniors, 14 joined the workforce and military. Six enrolled in technical college, and 12 enrolled in four-year universities. They earned $1.7 million in scholarships.

“When my sophomores first arrive, we make a 10-year plan. I don’t worry too much about nailing down exactly what they want to be when they grow up because I’ve learned from experience that, at this age, they’ll change their mind from one semester to another. We keep it simple: What are you best at? What would you like to be best at? And What does your success look like?”