Program Provides High Schoolers Access to IT Careers

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While some kids spent the past few months skiing and bowling in front of their Wiis or walking through the mall picking out the latest spring attire, more than 100 Chicago Public Schools students were preparing for an IT certification exam. On May 5 and 6, these students sat for a rigorous CompTIA exam, a move that will help them find gainful employment or give them valuable experience before moving on to higher education.

Roughly 650 students in six high schools participate in CompTIA’s Education to Careers (E2C). The program takes place as an elective during the regular school day and students can gain IT certifications. The program at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) engages students in two courses, A+ and Network+, teaching them the skills to pass the respective certification exams.

The program has been in place at CPS for about a decade. CompTIA began collaborating with the district several years ago to encourage new workers to enter IT. “CompTIA is interested in [getting new entrants into the field] for our corporate members who are looking for an ongoing pipeline [to] bring on board successful employees [for] the future,” explained Gretchen Koch, director of skills development programs at CompTIA.

“We work very actively with these communities and with these schools to [develop] an interest in young people in IT as a wonderful profession to pursue,” she said.

Charles Willard, CPS’ career cluster manager for IT, identified a number of benefits the program provides. First, it gives the students a meaningful skill. “As we know, computers are widely used across the board in many levels of industry,” he said. “[E2C] has afforded [students] the opportunity to step up into the world of employment at a higher level.”

Students acquire jobs while in high school with companies such as Best Buy and Circuit City, practicing the skills they learn in the classroom. For example, the students might work on diagnosing problems on PCs and then repairing them.

Not only does the program allow students to use the classroom-learned skills to find employment, it engages them in higher reasoning. “Eighty percent of resolving an [IT] issue is all mental diagnostics,” said Willard. “You’ve got to be able to walk mentally through the PC or the network and eliminate factors that might be causing the problem, and that takes higher reasoning.”

CPS perpetuates this engagement in higher reasoning through its articulation agreements with higher education institutions. “We do prepare them for a career if they so desire,” said Willard, “but at the same time, we have articulation agreements with the city colleges [and] universities, so that if a student wishes, they can go on to post-secondary school and enhance their skills.”

Students in the E2C program, as well as other similar programs, perform better academically than those who don’t get involved. “What we’ve found, and what research has found — in the career and technical education area across the U.S. and also in Illinois — is that our students tend to stay the course longer,” said Willard. “That is, they stay in school longer, they have better attendance and they have a higher graduation rate.”

The program gives students “opportunities they would not otherwise have,” he stated. And CompTIA has offerings in place to help ensure these opportunities are a bit easier to attain.

One accommodation the IT education provider makes is providing free vouchers for the teachers of E2C programs. The free vouchers “encourage the teachers to be certified themselves,” said Koch, “so they have a good indication of what it takes to pass the exam for their students.”

The company also offers discounted exam tickets to its members to help students pay for the exams. “[CompTIA] looked at the price of [its] certifications and saw that pricing could potentially be an impediment, particularly in publicly funded institutions,” said Koch. To help with this, “member institutions can purchase vouchers for their students at a significant discount for [CompTIA] certifications.”

Even with these features of the program, CPS recognizes it can still improve. One area in which CPS is pushing for improvement is community involvement, said Willard. “[CPS is trying] to get the business community around Chicago to embrace the Chicago Public Schools and give our students more opportunities for internships, paid and unpaid. We’re pushing towards the business world to reach back into the community, open up the doors and give our kids opportunities to really put their skills to work.”

“Internships can lead to full-time employment for these kids,” said Koch. “And internships give them real-life experience that they can add to their resumes.

“These children are so impressive; they are so smart,” she added. “They just love computers. This is the computer generation, [and] they’ve grown up with this stuff. These kids are really into it, and they’re really doing a good job.”

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Meagan Polakowski

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