Texas High School Students Use IT Certifications as Motivation, Means To Succeed

Students at El Dorado High School, a CompTIA Academy Partner in El Paso, TX, are launching their young careers with CompTIA certifications and other IT credentials – backed by the support of peers and parents, as well as lots of out-of-class, hands-on learning.

Students at El Dorado High School, a CompTIA Academy Partner in El Paso, TX, are launching their young careers with CompTIA certifications and other IT credentials – backed by the support of peers and parents, as well as lots of out-of-class, hands-on learning.

Throughout the school year, El Dorado computer instructor David Caldwell urges his students to use his program’s free training to earn industry IT certifications from CompTIA, Microsoft and other organizations. He uses industry employment data and salary statistics to map out how IT credentials can help students secure good jobs and pursue their dreams and ambitions.

“It’s a tough world out there,” said Caldwell, who began teaching after a 30-year career in private industry and has taught at El Dorado High School since 2004. “It’s up to me to encourage them to get these certifications before they get out of high school.”

Andrew Molina, class of 2007, was the first student to earn a CompTIA A+ certification through the school’s three-year computer maintenance career and technical education (CTE) program. He parlayed the credential into a part-time job with the local Socorro Independent School District during high school and a job with Best Buy’s Geek Squad during college. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, Molina is now a web and systems administrator at the school district. Earning the A+ “really was a doorway,” said Molina, adding that the opportunity to get certifications and a head start on job competition was “almost invaluable.”

For senior Sergio Hernandez, a student in El Dorado’s computer maintenance classes, the CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+, CompTIA Security+ and EC Council’s Certified Ethical Hacker credentials on his monster.com resume led to an HP job offer. The offer was rescinded once the stunned recruiter learned Hernandez was only 17, but the college-bound senior said, “For that to be my first time putting out my resume for a job, and to hear from HP within a week [of posting the resume] because of my certifications – that feels really good.”

Jacob Rey, a senior on track to be El Dorado’s class of 2014 valedictorian, earned his CompTIA A+, Network+ and Security+ credentials in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Information Technology in a Global Society (ITGS) course taught by Caldwell. Earning the credentials is helping him prepare for his high-level ITGS test and earn points towards his IB diploma. “Now I can find a job quicker at a younger age,” said Rey, who recently interviewed for admission to Stanford University and plans to use his computer skills to earn money while in college.

Motivation and Means to Succeed

The district wants all its CTE students to be both career and college ready, and George Thomas, director for the Socorro Independent School District’s CTE program, credits Caldwell for achieving that with the computer program. “These kids have goals, they know where they are going, and through these certifications, they can see they’ll have a job ahead of them.”

During the 2013-14 school year, Caldwell teaches six classes, totaling 117 students, for a three-year computer maintenance program, plus an additional class of 30 students in his two-year IB ITGS course.

Computer maintenance students have always pursued certifications, but last year IB students began pursuing certifications as well. Students last year earned a total of 20 A+, 12 Network+ and eight Security+ credentials, in addition to passing hundreds of SHL Talent Assessment, Certiport IC3 and MTA exams.

Exam costs, even with discounted exam vouchers that CompTIA provides to academy partners, can be prohibitive for high school students. So the computer club, the Fraternity of Geeks (FOG, for short), helps students raise money for exam costs, tracking the amount each earns towards their next test. A private $7,500 donation three years ago is encouraging more students to take exams.

Computer class periods are short – most 45 minutes, the longest 90 minutes – so twice a week, a dozen or more students meet Caldwell for an after-school study group, dubbed “the quest,” to prepare for certification exams and computer skill competitions with SkillUSA and Business Professionals of America (BPA). “The quest has been like a family,” said Hernandez, who is preparing for his MCSA Windows 8 exam and helping less experienced students in the quest. “We all work together.”

“[The students’] ultimate goal is to help one another get certified – through fundraising, and tutoring or just providing support to one another,” said Thomas. “The culture is one I’ve very seldom seen in 23 years in CTE programs.”

Even in summer, students meet with Caldwell once or twice a week to review certification prep materials or work on computers at the school. However, Caldwell said the real secret to his program’s success is working with the parents through regular group meetings, a monthly newsletter highlighting student certification achievements, and personal calls to parents that outline their student’s successes and next steps toward continued certification testing. In addition, students hold a monthly “Train the Parent” day in which parents can bring their computer questions and problems to the students for advice or repair.

In turn, the parents motivate their students, help fundraise for exam costs, and seek out sponsors and donations. “It’s all about parent contact,” Caldwell said. “You get the parents involved, and they’ll move mountains.”

Real World Experience

El Dorado students learn from local businesses as well. Many students volunteer in a Saturday community service program Caldwell created with Ruben Lopez, president of Computer Labs, an El Paso IT consulting, training and testing company. Under adult direction, students tear apart, rebuild and reconfigure computers for use at local shelters and non-profit organizations. “We got a lot of hands-on IT experience,” said Rey, who has made homemade Ethernet cables, installed memory, anti-virus software and operating systems, and tested network interface cards when volunteering. “You can have a hundred certifications, but if you didn’t know how to apply it in a real-world, hands-on setting, you are useless.”

To prepare for BPA skill competitions, students present their proposed network designs to the CompTIA Network+ and Security+ classes at Excel Learning Center in El Paso for demonstration practice and feedback. “They’re very professional,” said Oscar Lopez, an Excel instructor and an advisory board member for the program.

For his part, Ruben Lopez is delighted.  “It’s refreshing to see kids motivated and taking control of their career at such an early age.”

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