Down the broad, sunny entryway of Washington D.C.’s LAYC Career Academy, IT instructor Abner Soto uses a morning break to make small talk in the hallway — and to promote the school’s IT classes. “Hey, do you remember Jose Morales?” he asks one student. “He studied here, and now he’s working in IT in the main building.”
Down in his classroom, Soto introduces computer components to a group of skeptical new students. “We basically show them, ‘This is the slide, this is the motherboard, this is the CPU, and this is the software on how you’re going to build a computer,’” Soto said, describing his introduction to the school’s IT program. Students dive right in, and after a week of putting parts together and taking them apart — sometimes under rigorous time trials — students in LAYC Career Academy’s IT Pathway have taken the first step toward a career in information technology.
“They’re like, ‘Wow, in just one week I did that!’ They’re very excited,” Soto said.
An Innovative Charter School
Parked just south of the Capital Beltway, the LAYC Career Academy is an innovative charter school serving Washington D.C.’s disconnected youth. They offer GED training for those who need it, college credits for high school graduates, and direct pathways to careers in health care and IT.
“We’re kind of a bridge between high school and college, and also sort of a stopgap to prevent students who have dropped out repeatedly from doing it again,” said LAYC Career Academy Principal Angela Stepancic, who has helmed the operation since day one. The LAYC Career Academy is a public charter school operating in D.C. and a CompTIA academic partner.
The goal of all their programs is to make the diverse and dynamic student body college- and career-ready, Stepancic said. Through CompTIA’s academic partnership, students receive free training and testing vouchers so they can earn CompTIA A+ certification.
Abner Soto, a longtime instructor and until recently the career academy’s sole IT teacher, helped build the CompTIA partnership and easily implemented the program, according to Stepancic.
“I really appreciate the individualization and the ease of access and use of the program,” she said. “CompTIA has good benchmarks so students know what’s expected and when, and it’s broken down into manageable sections.”
LAYC Career Academy sets high expectations for its students, and Soto said his IT students take it very seriously.
“It’s a very expensive certification,” Soto said. “They’re thinking about their futures, and having the certification will give them lots of opportunities.”
The program is self-paced, which offers much-needed flexibility for students who “sometimes have trouble with attendance thanks to the interesting distractions and responsibilities they have in their lives,” according to Stepancic. The personalization also helps students who are coming from various backgrounds.
“We have students from all over the world. Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Africa,” said Soto. “About 40 percent of them speak Spanish and the other 60 percent English.” The CompTIA A+ training and testing is done in English and students must pass a reading test before taking Soto’s A+ classes.
Students on the path to CompTIA A+ certification must first earn IC3 certification before taking on 100 hours of training and a 300-hour office internship.
“Normally we spend about three months teaching the IC3, and then about six or seven months for the A+,” Soto said. “We also work with Cisco Academy on the IT Essentials: PC Hardware and Software, so when they jump into the A+ training, they have lots of experience with the material.”
Jose Morales is one of LAYC Career Academy’s early success stories. Though he worked evenings while he attended school, Morales sat for 14 tests and earned a variety of certifications — MOS, IC3, Microsoft Technology Association, Cisco Academy and CompTIA A+ — in just six months.
“To be honest, my goal wasn’t to be in the IT field, it was to be a soccer player,” Morales said. “For some reason, that didn’t happen, but then I got involved in technology and liked it. To me, it’s not like it’s a job, it’s more like a hobby.”
The classes were difficult at first, but once he understood the basics he was happy to pile on information.
“The A+ is a challenging certification. … Sometimes I would get frustrated because didn’t understand the topics of the certifications, but Abner is a good teacher, and he worked us through that process and we learned a lot,” he said.
Soto likes to share Morales’s story because it has a happy ending.
“He passed the IC3 certification and said, ‘I need more.’ So we moved him to MOS and he said, ‘It’s not helping, I need more.’ Then he passed the CompTIA A+ certification and now he’s working on the CompTIA Network+ certification,” Soto said. “English is not his first language, but he was working amazingly hard and spending the extra time in the classroom.”
Morales is now a junior IT tech at the Latin American Youth Center, a multicultural youth center that’s been around for 40 years and spawned LAYC Career Academy in the fall of 2012.
“Now when I get up for work in the morning, I don’t complain. I don’t have to do something I don’t like and each day brings something new,” Morales said. “For me it’s one of the greatest programs here in D.C.”
Christopher Brito, another early graduate of the IT pathway and proud CompTIA A+ certification holder, agreed. “Opportunities like this don’t come every day, and you’ve got to take them when they come,” he said.
In one year, while his wife Tristan participated in military basic training, Brito earned his GED and several IT certifications: CompTIA A+, Cisco Academy and IC3 Computing, both DS3 and DS4, among them.
“If you get an opportunity like that, you should not let it go, especially with being A+ certified,” Brito said over the phone from Killeen, Texas, where he’s a certified computer technician for Best Buy’s Geek Squad. “That gives you enough to be in a career that you can take and run with for life.”
The LAYC Career Academy did more than offer him a career pathway; it changed his mentality about learning. “After I got to the career academy, I didn’t want to leave school. I wanted to stay and keep learning about computers,” he said. He started reading, researching things online and watching the news. “I couldn’t stop. I still can’t stop.”
Thanks to motivation and mentoring from Soto, some older friends and his sister Estephany, who works at the youth center’s main building, Brito completed his training, A+ certification and internship in 12 months.
“My whole life has changed because of the academy. I think there should be programs like that around the world, even in foreign countries. That, right there, is just a kick start to anybody’s life,” Brito said. “If you came from the bottom, this will shoot you right to the top.”
He, too, plans to go into other forms of IT, though he’s still considering his career options.
“That type of field is never-ending,” he said. “Technology will never go away, it will never go to waste.”
LAYC has had a good success rate with the program so far: 86 percent of the first group passed the exam and are now A+ certified.
“It’s a very interesting program and I really trust the A+ certification,” Soto said. “It is very powerful.”
Michelle Peterson is the specialist, communications editor for CompTIA.