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The National Flight Academy will offer select St. Mary’s public school students an opportunity to learn on high-tech flight simulators and other equipment.

A classroom at the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center will be devoted to the program starting next year. It will feature flight simulators and mission control layouts, giving students a chance to expand their love of gaming into the classroom, said Gary Kessler, executive director of Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. NAWCAD provided the seed money to bring the flight academy to St. Mary’s.

Next year the academy will likely start as an elective class offered to upperclassmen in high school. Scott Smith, executive director of secondary schools and school improvement, said he also hopes to create an after-school program for middle school students linked to the academy next school year as well.

Kessler said the goal is to have the classroom set up by the end of this school year and hopefully offer some summer camps before the actual academy starts.

“Ultimately this center of innovation concept is to have these classrooms in several schools” in St. Mary’s and neighboring Calvert County, he said.

Kessler two years ago learned about the flight academies and approached Bonnie Green, executive director of the Patuxent Partnership, to help establish one in St. Mary’s.

“We’re delighted to have another opportunity to partner with St. Mary’s County Public Schools and NAWCAD and the broader community,” Green said.

Kessler said he visited a flight academy in Pensacola, Fla. and saw the impressive equipment as well as the benefits the students received from working with such cutting-edge technology.

“The home of naval aviation ... is ideal for this,” Kessler said.

Eventually the flight academy will be linked with the new Patuxent River Naval Museum, which held a groundbreaking earlier this year.

The National Flight Academy is a subsidiary of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. The academy is authorized by the Navy, but not endorsed or financially supported. Kessler said NAWCAD gave a $250,000 grant to The Patuxent Partnership to get the academy off the ground in Southern Maryland.

School board member Mary Washington asked if the academy was a career pathway for the school system, and inquired if there was enough money available for the program.

“We think it’s enough money” to start the program, Green said of the $250,000 donation. She said The Patuxent Partnership put additional money aside in case more was needed to get the academy up and running.

There will be an annual impact to the school board’s budget, but Superintendent Michael Martirano said he did not know what that figure would be yet. School administrators are crafting next year’s budget now, and the school board will likely get its first look at the fiscal year 2014 budget during meetings in January.

“We want to keep this centrally located in our county,” Martirano said of the location at the Forrest center. The program will also fit with the Forrest center’s existing aviation technology completer program.

For now, the new flight academy involves converting one large classroom at the Forrest center into a flight academy classroom, which will be divided into three sections: a flight simulation area, an air traffic control area and a mission command center.

Martirano said school administrators are still working out the logistics, including eligibility requirements for students and programming aspects.

“There’s a lot of work that has to occur in terms of professional development and training,” Martirano said.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland also joined in the partnership and plans to offer training for teachers.

“It demonstrates community commitment,” Martirano said.

Martirano said that this is one more model put in place to meet the needs of students, adding that he often hears students say while in high school they are learning things that go beyond even some college experiences.

“Just let your imagination go. Look what this is going to do. It’s going to open up all kinds of doors,” Sal Raspa, school board chair, said.

Raspa said that his son is a pilot, who would have loved to have had an opportunity like the flight academy when he was in school in St. Mary’s.

jyeatman@somdnews.com