People in Certification — Mr. Carrera’s Opus

This feature, by Breanna Olaveson and Cody Clark, first appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Certification Magazine.

Johnny Carrera didn’t set out to become a magician, or even just a teacher. But he has pulled off something magical in a decade of teaching IT skills to kids at Holmes High School, a Title I school in one of the poorest areas in San Antonio, Texas. Since Carrera walked into a large empty room at Holmes High in 2004, students from his program have earned more than 100 IT certifications in five different subject matters. Some former students have taken jobs making two or three times what their parents earn, and enrollment in his classes had grown from “75 really brave kids” in 2004 to 200 students meeting in three different classrooms in 2014.

Budgets are tight at Holmes High, and though Carrera actually gets school funding for his program in 2014, he started out doing whatever he could think of to amass money and materials. Over the years Carrera and his students have sold T-shirts, thrown food fairs, hosted video gaming nights and even established and operated a computer repair shop called Tech-Know (the students picked the name) inside Holmes High. Whatever it takes — including beef jerky. Every year Carrera stocks up on the Holmes High snack meat of choice, which is made available to faculty and students alike, and every year he sells out.

“I go to seminars with other teachers and tell them about what we’re doing here, and they say, ‘Oh, our kids can’t do that. We don’t have the resources,’ ” Carrera said. “I tell them, ‘I’m at a Title I school. If we can do it, your rich kids can do it.’ ”

Students in Carrera’s program earned 35 certifications just in the 2012-2013 school year. He designs his entire curriculum around certification and sets high expectations. The students study for and earn certifications from CompTIA (A+, Network+, Security+ and Linux+), Cisco (CCNA) and TestOut (PC Pro and Network Pro). Students who earn certifications get their photo on Carrera’s Wall of Fame, and his program’s motto — “Holmes Huskies are Certifiable” — is blazoned on T-shirts, watermarked on class documents and hung from the ceiling on large colorful banners.

The beginning

The booming Holmes High certification program certainly didn’t start out that way. Before taking a job as a teacher, Carrera was a technician and network administrator at the school during its integration of a new computer system.

“It was a big time for the district,” Carrera said. “They were starting to invest a lot in technology. A lot of students would come and ask me to teach them to build computers. They bought the parts, and I helped them on my lunch hour.”

Carrera mentioned to the school principal that the kids seemed to really enjoy learning about computers, and offhandedly suggested that someone should start a class to teach them more about technology. The principal had seen that Mr. C — as his students now call him — had a natural rapport with the kids who already took up his lunch breaks. Maybe he’d be interested in teaching a class about computers himself?

“I said sure, I probably would, but I didn’t think she’d actually call me on it,” Carrera said. “I kind of blew it off and didn’t think she was actually going to do it.”

He thought wrong: Two weeks before the start of class in August 2004, the principal called Carrera at his home and told him there was a classroom available. The would-be educator didn’t have a teaching certificate, but the principal assured him that he could still teach. Texas state law includes a stipulation for cases like Carrera’s that allows professionals in certain fields to gain teaching certification through an expedited program. He could start teaching right away.

With one mildly aggravating proviso: The district sent a letter to all parents of Carerra’s students advising them that an “uncertified teacher” would be supervising the new class. Welcome to your new job — these several dozen people would already like to complain about what you’re doing here. And that was far from Carrera’s only challenge. When the principal showed him his new classroom, there was nothing in it.

“What about desks?” he asked. “What about equipment? Books?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But here are the keys.”

Getting started

Carrera went to work gathering supplies. He found a book repository with old textbooks, but none of the books were very useful.

“They had no computer books, but I did find a book on heating and air conditioning repair that taught about small engine repairs,” Carrera said. “At the back there was a tiny section on computers. So I took it.”

Carrera talked to his friends in the school’s IT department and rescued a handful of computers that had been marked for disposal. He asked the head custodian to help him gather a hodgepodge of orphaned desks. He found some old, greasy benches from a discontinued shop class and lined them up outside the building to await cleaning. And then, just when things were starting to come together, the class was canceled.

“I’d already quit my job — I’d moved from IT to the teaching department,” Carrera said. “The principal came to me and said ‘They’re going to cancel it. We have to go to the administration.’ ”

School district officials didn’t approve of the class, which seemed like it had the potential to become an expensive boondoggle, a drain on precious resources at a school where the buildings are routinely tagged by graffitists and 98 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch at the school cafeteria. When Carrera said that his class would be certification-based, providing a tangible benefit to kids, the lead district official made no bones about dismissing that notion. Carrera has never forgotten what he was told that day:

“You will never get a high school student certified.”

Undeterred, Carrera shared his plans for the class in greater detail, explaining that it would be based on CompTIA’s A+ certification, and would be challenging in spite of its status as an elective. At length, he was grudgingly given the go-ahead. He could start the class, but would receive no district funding.

The first year

When Mr. C plunged in on the first day, he knew very little about teaching, but he did have a few clear ideas. He was determined that, as he had promised school district officials, the class would be directly geared toward certification. Carrera was confident that a real challenge would attract bright, motivated students, and that bright, motivated students would rise to the academic demands of certification.

He was right. For the most part, even at the very beginning, Carrera’s class attracted students who were driven and capable and took their futures seriously. The students who showed up were quite willing to work hard to create their own better future.

“School started, and all the kids came in,” Carrera said. “I started talking to them about computers. Then I told them to wear crappy clothes the next day because we were going to clean those dirty, greasy benches that were outside. It was really cool. My students that first year were the best. It was a gradual learning process, but the kids were super adventurous. We just dove in, headfirst.”

None of his students passed a certification exam that year, but Carrera was undeterred. He and his students had created a strong foundation for their new program, and the promise that certification could lead to better things was still before them. As one student, Jason Espino, excitedly reported to his teacher, “Sir, I looked this up on the internet. You can get money for (certification)!”

Little by little, Carrera gained the resources he needed. One big benefactor was Roger Trevino, founder and owner of Twang, a San Antonio food company that specializes in flavored salts. Trevino, a former “west side” kid like Carrera’s students, got involved early on and has become a bit of a patron saint: “Mr. Twang” donates $4,000 to the Holmes High IT program every year, provides T-shirts (designed by the students), takes time to meet with and encourage students, and hosts a steak dinner for the highest-achieving students at the end of each school year.

By the end of year two, the Holmes High IT program had taken root. A pair of students passed certification exams, including Espino, who went on to take a job at Rackspace, a major cloud services provider based in San Antonio. Today, Espino makes a six-figure salary at Rackspace and visits Holmes High once a month to take his old teacher to lunch.

Raising the bar

“A lot of teachers are afraid to have high standards,” Carrera said. “But if they have no standards, they’ll attract the kids who don’t care. I get the cream of the crop. The kids who want to get into IT, who want to make money, to go to college, to do good stuff — those are the kids you want.”

One of those energetic strivers is Angel Rosario, a current student in the IT program. He chose to take IT classes because they aligned with his career goals — goals he set as a high school student.

“I thought this would help me gain hands-on experience going into the technology field later on, after high school and after college as well,” Rosario said.

Rosario has earned the Network+ and Security+ certifications already and is studying to take the Server+, CCNA and Linux+ certification exams at the end of the school year. One student graduated with seven certifications. Another one got a job making $40,000/year — at age 18. Like Espino, several former Huskies have jobs at Rackspace. When Carrera takes students to the gleaming Rackspace corporate campus on field trips, he always phones ahead and asks former students to meet the class as the main entrance.

“Mr. Carrera taught us a lot of things — not just the curriculum, but other things that are relatable, career-wise,” said Jose Muzquiz, a graduate of the Holmes High IT program. “He would help us with career choices and talk to us about jobs. He made the whole program kind of a career-based thing.”

There are some areas of his program that Carrera doesn’t even directly supervise — the students are in charge. Holmes High has a CyberPatriot team that participates in an annual national competition hosted by the Air Force Association, a nonprofit military and aerospace education group.

CyberPatriot is sort of like marching band, or the football team: Kids drill relentlessly, then test their skills against teams of IT students from other schools. Holmes High started with just five students involved, which grew to 10, and is now at 30. The second- and third-year CyberPatriot students manage the entire program, including planning curriculum and teaching lessons.

Mr. C’s only role in CyberPatriot is that of cheerleader and delighted observer. And he doesn’t mind that his students are leapfrogging their instructor on some fronts. After 10 years, that’s begun to be a familiar sensation. “I have students working at Rackspace who make way more than I do,” Carrera beamed.

Certifications

This school year, Holmes High students in Carrera’s IT program can take a range of certification exams — including A+, Network+, Security+, Linux+, Server+, Certified Cisco Network Associate (CCNA), PC Pro, Network Pro and Java — all at no cost to them. That was important to Carrera from the start: He didn’t want students to not attempt the exams because of cost concerns. In the beginning, he footed the bill with money entirely from fundraising and donations, though the school now pitches in as well.

The Holmes High program is still growing. Next year, students will also have the option to take the Server+ and Cloud+ exams. Added to the current lineup, that’s more certifications than are offered at any other high school in the country. That’s important to Carrera, who means it when he tells other teachers or school officials that the Holmes High program is certification-focused. Every class prepares students to attempt a certification exam.

A few years ago, the program grew so much that Carrera could no longer handle the teaching load on his own. The school hired Juan Guerrero, a teacher, computer technician and network analyst, to teach some of the classes.

“I think the program itself is just amazing,” Guerrero said. “I’ve always wanted to do something like this. What we do in our school is way beyond what a lot of colleges are doing. It’s mind-blowing that we’re doing this at a high school level.”

Helping students grow

The certification numbers represent more than just an innovative idea in a growing field. The students who pass the certification exams actually improve their lives. Muzquiz, who graduated in 2013, works for a manufacturing company in San Antonio. He came on as the company’s IT guy, managing all of its network and user accounts.

“It’s cool because we learned to apply everything we learned to computer jobs,” Muzquiz said. “So coming out of high school I already know some of the skills needed for that kind of job. I think I’m the youngest guy at the whole company.”

At 19, Muzquiz is already in a managerial position in his field of choice. As a student at The University of Texas at San Antonio, Muzquiz still has a long way to go before he reaches his goal of becoming a cybersecurity professional. But the skills he learned from John Carrera at Holmes High School helped get him on the path that leads to a successful career.

“[Mr. Carrera] uses his past life experiences to guide us,” Muzquiz said. “He’s just someone you can relate to. Taking his classes was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.”

The Holmes High program is a haven for students who don’t necessarily fit in anywhere else. Carrera tries to promote a family feel, letting students hang out on breaks or drop in after school. Class members wear the IT program T-shirt every Friday. A privileged few even get to work at Tech-Know, the student-operated computer repair shop.

In exchange for donations to the Holmes High IT program, Tech-Know repairs computers brought in by teachers and members of the community. Carrera picks two or three different students every six weeks to work at Tech-Know, but there’s a catch: Only students who have either an A+ or Network+ certification can be considered, and every student who is qualified and wants the job has to create a resume and formally apply.

The students who work at Tech-Know don’t get a wage, but they do get special permission to make deliveries during class — a much-coveted perk, Carrera said — and they graduate high school with a very impressive entry added to the employment history section of their resumes.

Looking ahead

Carrera has always been his students’ biggest champion, but even he knows the Holmes High School program may have grown as far as it can — at least in some directions.

“There’s a certain limit to how much we can offer,” he said. “I think we’re getting close to the ceiling of what a high school kid can pull off. Some of these certifications are super high. But this program is only in my school. There are 14 high schools in my district.”

Carrera and Guerrero have short-term goals to add a few more certifications to their curriculum and, soon, to integrate freshmen. In the long term, they hope to see the program’s reach expand beyond the Holmes High campus.

“I would love to see entry-level certification courses at every high school in our district,” Carrera said. “And then if the kids want more, maybe we could even start a separate magnet school that teaches really high-level stuff for them.”

If nothing else, Johnny Carrera is giving kids who live in poverty a chance to make a good living based on solid, marketable skills. And that’s what he’s been hoping for all along.

“It’s funny, because you come every day and hope you’re affecting the kids in a positive way,” he said. “You wonder what’s going to happen. Then they come in and say, ‘I’m going to UT and I’m going to be an engineer because of your class.’ It’s great.”

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Certification Magazine was launched in 1999 and remained in print until mid-2008. Publication was restarted on a quarterly basis in February 2014. Subscribe to CertMag here.

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Comment:

  • @Certified_Train

    I can’t say how happy this story makes me. Standard education is not preparing our students for skill-based jobs in the IT industry which makes up so much of our economy. Companies can’t find qualified individuals to hire, and colleges keep putting out Liberal Arts majors with no experience, 85K in student loans and no skills.

    Introducing technology to children as a gateway to escaping poverty is a powerful message. I would love to see a long-term study done with these students, tracking where they started and where they have made it vs. the median. The results may astound us.