Indiana IT program molds high school students into job-ready professionals

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This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy. 

There are many important lessons to learn from an IT teacher.

Indiana sports history is filled with famous coaches like Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, Bobby Knight, and a host of others. One who stands out is legendary basketball coach John Wooden — winner of 10 NCAA national championships (including a record seven in a row) while at UCLA. At one point, Wooden’s teams won 88 consecutive games.

Wooden, however, wasn’t overly concerned with winning. He felt that if you prepared and did your best, wins would follow. He saw himself foremost as a teacher, often stating that, “The teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession.”

At the start of each season Wooden would instruct players in the proper way to put on their socks and lace up their shoes. He emphasized these basics as a way to prevent blisters and sprained ankles that could limit a player’s game time.

Wooden’s former players, including stars like Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, loved and admired him for teaching them to succeed in life as well as in athletics. Upon retiring, Wooden himself said, “In the end, it’s about the teaching.

“What I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, and not the tournaments, but teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.”

Another Hoosier continuing the tradition of preparing young people for success is Walt Jaqua, who teaches IT and certification at James Whitcomb Riley High School in South Bend, Ind. An unassuming and friendly individual, Jaqua has a gift for making people feel comfortable. He describes himself as “a teacher and mentor at heart,” who loves to pass his experience on to others.

Entry into teaching

Jaqua began his IT career in 1980 working for a large office machine dealer repairing electronic equipment. He also taught repair classes on the original IBM PC and HP LaserJet printers to other technicians.

In 1994, Jaqua cofounded a successful IT service company providing network and system integration, as well as custom software application, to small and medium size businesses. He remained with the company until 2009, when he felt the teaching itch. “I left business and wanted to do something either in the healthcare industry or in academia,” he said.

Jaqua came across a job posting from the South Bend Community School Corporation. The director of the Career and Technical Education Department (CTE) wanted to start a dual-credit IT program that included the opportunity for students to earn industry certifications.

CTE had previously formed an advisory committee to study the needs of the community in relation to current course offerings and found an IT program was needed. “This was a tailor-made opportunity that allowed me to teach exactly what I had been doing professionally for the last 30- plus years,” said Jaqua.

As the sole instructor, Jaqua began building the program from the ground up. Fortunately, he had a CTE director, Laura Marzotto, who possessed a lot of foresight, believed in the program, and backed him 100 percent. With Marzotto’s support, he began gathering materials and tools to get the program running.

Focus on employable IT skills

From the start, Jaqua took extra steps to ensure success, aligning with IT industry association CompTIA. “My first order of business was to join CompTIA and establish an on-site Pearson VUE test center so students could test in a familiar environment.”

The official name of Jaqua’s program is Information Technology: PC and Network Support. It’s a two-year program of study requiring approximately 810 class hours. Students enroll during junior year and start with a computer tech support class built around CompTIA’s core A+ certification.

This gets them up to speed on the basics of computer hardware, mobile devices, and operating systems. They also learn principles of building, installing, upgrading, configuring, diagnosing, troubleshooting, and repairing computers, as well as customer service and communication skills.

During year two, students take Networking I, which aligns with CompTIA’s Network+ credential. The curriculum is designed to prepare students for careers in business and industry working with network systems. They learn to design, install, configure, maintain, troubleshoot, operate, and manage a basic network infrastructure with an emphasis on proper security practices.

Students are able to earn up to 22 transcript credits at various colleges and universities via the program. Completion of year one earns a student six credits, and in year two an additional two credits. Some institutions even award 14 credits for students completing a CCNA through the program.

Earn your admission

Participating students come from the district’s public high schools, as well as parochial and private schools, and and there are also some homeschooled students. While there are no prerequisites, admission isn’t automatic — students complete an application that asks about their GPA, attendance, discipline record, and educational and career goals.

Additionally, because of the significant number of class periods required to participate in the program, students must verify that they have the necessary credits (or are able to make up those credits during summer school, via online classes, and so forth). The program runs three class periods per day, five days a week, for both years.

Once the application is complete and credits verified, prospective students get a one-on-one “job interview” with Jaqua. The purpose is for the students to meet him and ask questions about the program.

“This gives me the opportunity to make certain they understand the program, its objectives and expectations, and the unlimited possibilities they have as a result of being involved,” he said. “I’m looking for students who have a spark of interest and desire to learn about the field of IT.”

The interview, Jaqua said, often makes students more excited to enter the program: “Some students don’t quite realize the opportunity they have, and I try to help them recognize it. After we meet and they hear about what we’ll be doing in class, most are even more fired up to join the program.

“Once they understand what they are getting into it really increases their excitement levels.”

Education and certification

Once enrolled, students pursue courses of study that qualify them to sit for various certification exams. During the first year, they study for CompTIA’s A+ and Microsoft’s MTA Windows Operating System Fundamentals certifications.

Those who demonstrate considerable prior knowledge can test out of the year one certs and work ahead. This lets them begin the second year’s required networking course either before completing their junior year, or during the summer between junior and senior years.

Second-year students prepare for CompTIA’s Network+, as well as the MTA Networking Fundamentals and MTA Security Fundamentals certs issued by Microsoft. With Jaqua’s approval, students can also pursue any of 12 additional certifications based on their college and/or career plans.

“I’m always open to other certification paths for students who demonstrate competency and self-motivation in a particular discipline,” said Jaqua. “In the first year everyone wants to do more certifications, and during the second year, approximately 25 percent actually pursue extra certs. For several years running now I’ve had students earn seven or more certifications.”

CTE pays for the voucher for any certification exam, but students have to be approved by Jaqua to receive a voucher. “The student must qualify to sit for an exam. This means they must have a high level of confidence in their ability, prove their level of competency and pass a qualifier exam, and I must feel confident in their ability,” he said.

If for some reason a student fails a certification exam, they pay the cost of any retakes.

Keeping pace with the future

Jaqua is having the time of his life training the next generation of IT professionals. “It’s rewarding to hear back from former students about the impact I had on them in preparing for college, careers, and life,” he said. “Those students who take what I am offering them and run with it find that there is no limit to what they can achieve.”

Just as Coach Wooden wasn’t overly concerned with winning, however, certification isn’t Jaqua’s primary goal for his students. His first objective is helping students become excellent IT professionals. The focus only shifts to certification after that first priority has been achieved.

“Teaching only for the certification is a big sore spot with me,” he said. “When a student becomes an excellent IT professional, they are no longer mediocre. They will stand out from the crowd. They will succeed. If I can help them become excellent IT professionals, certifications will follow. It’s a natural by-product.”

Jaqua believes that the future depends on the students themselves, more than anything else. “When a high school student goes directly into the workforce after graduation, their lack of job experience will most times be a barrier to employment,” he said.

There are many important lessons to learn from an IT teacher.“Certification is not a golden ticket but rather a way to provide an opportunity for the student to get in front of employers to prove what they know and that they can actually perform in the real world. I want my students to be self-motivated and self-disciplined and master the important areas that are typical deficiencies of most IT job applicants.”

According to Jaqua his mission is more than teaching IT. He sees it as “motivating, encouraging, and supporting students by providing a favorable environment to educate them socially, professionally, and cognitively as a foundation to pursue their college and career goals, as well as becoming lifelong learners.”

Business environment

Because Jaqua has a great deal of business expertise, he runs his class like a business, making sure that everything taught is done in relation to real-world work experience. “On the first day of class, I make it clear that along with learning the technical content of the course, I have many other goals to help prepare the student for the real-world 21st century workplace,” he said.

Students work on developing critical thinking and problem solving skills while working independently and in collaboration with others. As Jaqua sees it, “Becoming an excellent IT professional includes having the technical knowledge, but it can’t stop there. If we stop with the technical knowledge we do the student no favors.

“They must have professional skills, soft skills, life skills, and conceptual technical knowledge, and practical real world, hands-on skills. Employers are begging for candidates that can think critically, problem solve, communicate, take what they know in their head and apply it to the real-world.”

His students also spend considerable time learning and practicing customer service, phone and e-mail etiquette, and social interaction and communication. “I make sure students have job interview experience, a resume, and can create an effective social-media profile,” said Jaqua.

“They must also be lifelong learners and continue to push themselves to be their best. If they do, there are almost unlimited opportunities for these students as they advance in their careers.”

From student to IT professional

So far the program results are impressive, with approximately 28 percent of students continuing on in IT after high school. Marzotto is very pleased with the results. “Walt has built this program from scratch, making improvements each year and preparing our students to hit the ground running on graduation. Enrollment in class is competitive due to the quality of instruction and the benefits gained upon completion,” she said.

Walt Jaqua was honored at CompTIA Partner Summit in July.

Walt Jaqua (center)

Jaqua is an advocate of students being able to do what they have learned and believes certification exams should be 100 percent performance- based. His classes focus on hands-on activities, including a heavy dose of practice labs and real-world scenarios.

“Most of my assessments are performance-based,” he said. “We still teach how to dissect and answer multiple-choice questions, but multiple choice isn’t an option when a student gets into the real world. They need conceptual knowledge, to be able to build on experience, and critically think through a problem to solve it efficiently and effectively.”

In his ceaseless efforts to expand the reach of the program, Jaqua has implemented a middle school technology camp during the summer months. “This camp is run by my current IT students,” he said, “and focuses on having fun with all kinds of hands-on activities, while seeing how technology works, developing stronger problem solving skills, and exploring a potential IT career path.”

Jaqua has also built strong relationships with community partners who support the program with internships, curriculum development, guest speakers, and field trips, opportunities for job-shadowing, and donating equipment. One partner even offers his employees to write labs for the students. “They are a fantastic group of people that I can rely on and bounce ideas off,” said Jaqua.

There are many great things being taught at James Whitcomb Riley High School. Students are being well-prepared for rewarding careers in IT. If it’s true that “ability is a poor man’s wealth,” then Walt Jaqua is enriching his students in a great many ways.

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Calvin Harper

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Calvin Harper is an associate editor of Certification Magazine.

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