As students begin a new year of courses and learning, it’s time to set goals and evaluate accomplishments. While the quality of a high school education is often judged by standardized test scores, the school’s graduation rates and the graduating class’ college-acceptance statistics, there are other measures that merit consideration – certification.
“The students who come in here and learn and do their best, there’s a possibility for 100 percent of them to be marketable and employable right out of high school,” Walt Jaqua, CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+ instructor for South Bend Community School Corp. in South Bend, Indiana, said.
Jaqua and Kevin Kelly, A+ and Network+ instructor for the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology in Indianapolis, judge their programs’ successes based on workforce preparedness and job placement. The hallmark of the programs that both men run is the community support and each program’s network of employers who have learned to look for, trust and hire graduates of the programs.
“There are employers looking to hire entry-level students directly from the program,” Jaqua said. “There are still more IT jobs than there are people to fill them. It’s an in-demand field. Employers are looking for entry-level people so they can train them and they’re not coming with a lot of bad habits.”
Students in each of the programs are offered real-world, technical training with access to on-site testing for IT certifications that carry over and count toward college credit or qualify them for jobs after graduation. South Bend Community School and McKenzie Center offer courses to high school students to prepare them for A+, Network+ and Security+ certifications, among others. Both schools are certified CompTIA test sites. “The kids are in their own environment,” Kelly said of having an on-site testing center. “Here they feel comfortable. When the kids see other kids getting certified, it pushes them over the top and it might encourage someone who wasn’t going to test to try. We hold it as kind of a competition, too. We project their scores on the test, and it makes it a fun, healthy competition.” A graduate from Kelly and Jaqua’s programs could have multiple certifications and multiple credits toward a college education.
While they are working toward those certifications, Jaqua and Kelly’s students are learning while gaining experience. Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township in Indianapolis works closely with Kelly. The district’s Director of Technology John McFarland and Network Administrator Scott Davis sit on Kelly’s advisory board and hire Kelly’s students to work for the district during the summer. This past summer, 14 of his students were reimaging Chromebooks for the district. “It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “We do a lot of learning and hands-on in the lab, but actually getting out and doing it on the job is a big difference.”
This falls in line with President Obama’s initiative to promote education for in-demand jobs. The president identified in-demand jobs in STEM-related fields, including information technology, healthcare and manufacturing. Last year, the Department of Education awarded more than $100 million in grants to more than two dozen schools across the country. The Youth CareerConnect grants will fund the development of programs that integrate academic and career-focused learning with exposure to work-based learning and employer engagement – programs much like those that Jaqua and Kelly are already running.
Obama is encouraging personalized teaching and learning to produce graduates with knowledge and skills to succeed in careers or post-secondary education, an approach Jaqua said is crucial to guiding his students down the right path. “I spend a lot of time one-on-one with students just discussing their background; what they like about technology; where they feel like they want to go,” Jaqua said. “I present them with information about the careers available in the field. I look at their aptitude and how they are doing in class. My goal is to expose them to as much as I can expose them to. As they progress through the program, I want to tailor everything they do to meet their goals.”
In screening the applications to the South Bend Community School Corp., “I’m looking for someone who is teachable; who has a high level of interest in the field of technology; who will come in here and work as hard as they can possibly work,” Jaqua said.
Jaqua begins to drum up interest from potential students well before their junior year in high school. “I’m reaching into middle school,” he said. “I need to make them aware of my program earlier in their school careers. One of the things I’m doing is I’m running a summer technology camp for students and recruiting down into the seventh and eighth grade to find the young women and men who are interested in the field of technology.”
On average, about 60 percent of graduates from the South Bend Community School Corp. go into post-secondary education or the military and about 40 percent of them go directly into the workforce.
Kelly said he’s seen a bit of a shift in his students’ post-high school plans. “It used to be about 94 percent went off to further education but worked part-time jobs while they were doing that,” he said. “It’s starting to swing the other way now. There are more students going into the job force.” Kelly is quick to point out one of his students is now an employee with Metropolitan Township School District, but Kelly’s graduates can be found in companies all over Indianapolis, including Simmon Property Group, Bell Techlogix, Computer Express, Computer Renaissance, Fry’s Electronics, Interactive Intelligence and Best Buy Geek Squad.
Describing himself as his students’ cheerleader and coach, Kelly said his program is rigorous and is best suited to students who love hands-on learning. “They’ve got to have the passion to learn more than just what’s given to them on a daily lesson,” Kelly said. “They don’t have to know anything about computers, but they have to have the passion. I’ve seen kids on 4.0 scale who have not passed the A+ certification the first time. That opens up the eyes of the kids when that happens.”
The IT field is constantly changing, but Kelly’s graduates and his 16 advisory board members keep the program current. The board, which includes former students and representatives from local companies, discusses trends in the industry and what everyone sees happening in the workforce. It can then decide what to focus on in the classroom. “I love to go back and talk to the kids,” Kelly said. “I was at Fry’s yesterday, and one of the kids over there went through the program. He said the main thing he would stress is soft skills, like customer service. We do a lot of the technical training, but getting in and practicing our soft skills is important.”
As the school year starts and Kelly and Jaqua meet students new to their programs, that personalized learning path begins again. They’ll create a whole new set of goals for a new class of soon-to-be employable graduates. “Today the IT field is so broad,” Jaqua said. “Coming into the program, they may not understand what’s out there and what’s available to them.”
Jamie Marturano is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.