U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had nothing but lavish praise Friday for Aviation High School, the Des Moines school in the shadow of the Sea-Tac flight path where the students learn science and math concepts with hands-on projects.

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He only got to see the school after classes were out for summer, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had nothing but lavish praise Friday for Aviation High School, the Des Moines school in the shadow of the Sea-Tac flight path where all the kids learn science and math concepts with hands-on projects.

“Everybody knows you’re on to something extraordinary,” Duncan said. “This is an amazing example of what’s possible in public education.”

Duncan, accompanied by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, got to drive a soccer-playing robot built by Skunkworks, the school’s 40-member robotics team. He quizzed students about their education, took part in a panel discussion about math and science, shook hands and posed for pictures.

The audience of about 200 that gathered in a sweltering school gymnasium was like a who’s who of public-education professionals in the state, including union leaders and state education-board members.

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State Superintendent Randy Dorn hopes that Duncan’s decision to visit Washington is a sign that this state has a shot at getting money from Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s school-grant plan that offers big financial incentives for states that accept controversial reform requirements.

Washington didn’t apply for the first round of Race to the Top grants because it had not yet passed legislation necessary for the state to qualify to compete.

In the second round, the state got 265 out of 295 school districts to support the application, Dorn said. The winners will be announced in September.

States win points in the competition for a willingness to endorse school innovations, such as expanding charter schools. But Washington doesn’t have a law allowing charter schools — even though Aviation High has all the hallmarks of one. Duncan said expanding schools that are “innovative” also counts.

One audience member asked Duncan to reconsider the way states earn points in the Race to the Top process.

“Go back and look at your rubric,” said Trish Dziko, co-founder of the Technology Access Foundation, a Seattle nonprofit that prepares underserved students of color for higher education or careers.

“Give other schools a chance, like Aviation High,” Dziko said. “They need encouragement from your administration.” Dziko’s comment brought a round of applause from the audience.

But mostly, the education secretary’s visit was heady acknowledgment that a young, innovative school was doing something right.

Aviation High opened in 2004, and this year reached capacity with 400 students. It’s in a former middle-school building that’s seen better days.

The school is trying to raise money to build a permanent location adjacent to The Museum of Flight.

About 40 percent of its students come from outside the district, drawn there by its focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Its standardized test scores are high; 98 percent of students in the class of 2011 passed the 10th grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning, and 87 percent passed the math WASL.

Although the mood in Aviation High’s gymnasium was upbeat, Duncan’s visit to Washington comes at a time when teachers unions are increasingly expressing frustration with the Obama administration’s education policies.

Some of that frustration has been evident at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) convention this week in Seattle. About 40 AFT teachers arrived at Aviation High an hour before Duncan’s appearance and protested in front of the school, waving signs and chanting for Duncan’s ouster.

Protester Yvette Felarca, a California teacher running for AFT president, said teachers believe federal funding should be based on need, not on competition, and that it was insulting that Duncan was “circling around our convention” without giving a talk there.

Convention organizers said they invited President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden to speak, but both turned down the offer. Duncan was not invited because he spoke to the organization last year.

Duncan said his appearance in Washington during the time of the AFT conference was a coincidence.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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