Oct 31 2006

Highway to Success

Nashville students enroll in technology courses to prepare for future careers.

Imagine a highway leading directly to a student’s chosen professional destination.

The best schools in the nation thrive by taking a liberal arts-orientation toward high school education. Students receive an equal dose of math, science, literature and sports, which prep them for college or the working world. It’s usually during the post-graduation years that these students start selecting a career path.

Yet a select group of teachers in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools have the opportunity to steer their students onto the information highway and the ever-evolving technology world during high school years. With funding from the Nashville school district and the National Science Foundation, these educators launched the Stratford Information Technology Academy (SITA).

“To me, SITA means that I have the chance to better myself in the field I have chosen,” says Matthew Oldham, a 16-year-old junior who started taking classes at SITA last fall. The program “offers a revolutionary new way of learning the skills necessary for the future of technology,” he explains.

Offering far more than an enhanced learning experience, SITA provides its students with access to an “educational interstate,” says Newton Rowland, lead instructor of the SITA program.

“They are learning critical skills that will give them the potential to move into the workforce,” Rowland explains. “They might get off at some point to take a break and perhaps fill up the tank … but no matter when or where they exit the education highway, they take with them a variety of skills that can be adapted to the business world.”

But SITA isn’t alone in its focus on technology. A growing number of high schools in the United States are adopting a technology curriculum. The National Science Foundation funds schools such as these to increase the number of students who are proficient in math, science and technology.

Focusing on Three Tech Areas

Based within Stratford Comprehensive High School, SITA is a school-within-a-school. The Center for Information Technology Education at Nashville State Technical Community College also aids in administering the unique program. The school stays aligned with the high-paced demands of technology by focusing on three areas: hardware, networking and cabling; Web design; and network operating systems. Teachers consider grades, essays and recommendations when they select 150 students each year from among the district’s 36 middle schools to take part in the program.

SITA integrates rigorous academic courses with classes in technology to produce graduates who possess the skills to gain acceptance at four-year colleges and earn national industry certifications in their technological areas of focus. The high school offers coursework in core subjects, such as math, English, social studies and science. In one recent case-based project that focused on biological ecosystems, for example, the students worked with electric probes to collect data and then map results on a Web site.

In another project, students studied electrocardiogram readouts to diagnosis whether the pictured hearts were healthy. That lesson plan combined subject matter from biomedical engineering, anatomy and physics.

Some of SITA’s students plan to attend college, while others may opt to begin professional careers immediately after high school. Some students also hope to cash in on their newly acquired skills to earn money for college studies.

“I will be able to get a good job before I even start college with the skills that I develop here,” predicts John Towe, a 14-year old freshman at SITA.

Unlike the structure of more conventional classrooms—setups that Rowland jokingly summarizes as “come in, sit down, shut up and pay attention”—SITA’s students often work independently or in a team format. The students exchange Information through traditional lectures and dialogue with experts in the field.

With a curriculum that is centered on case-based learning projects, the students develop their critical thinking skills, says Brenda Elliott, principal of Stratford Comprehensive High School.

“The program helps young people learn how to use technology to solve all kinds of problems, which, in turn, helps them do a better job of managing their lives,” Elliott says.

According to Rowland, one of the most notable attributes of the SITA program has been the feeling of independence that students acquire. “They have to get out, dig in and become self-sufficient,” he says. “They love it because they are accountable to themselves. As instructors, we often have to get out of their way.”

Understanding Priorities

In addition to fostering technical and academic skills, SITA’s unique format also helps its students understand workplace priorities, such as teamwork, time management, goal setting and planning. The teachers at SITA also underscore conduct guidelines, such as “don’t lie, cheat, steal or be late,” which will help ensure that the students will be successful outside the classroom as well.

The private sector also plays a key role in the school’s curriculum. Students routinely take field trips, and some local businesses are an integral part of the program, contributing their time, services and facilities.

“We bring in local professionals who work in networking or Web design or other areas in which students are being prepared,” Rowland says.

SITA grooms students to earn certifications, such as Cisco Certified Network Associate; CompTIA i-NET+, the Computer Technology Industry Association’s credential that requires a minimum of six months of experience in Internet technology; and Comp TIA A+, a credential that is geared toward service technicians. Students can also earn up to 15 college credits.

Before the program started last year, students who were interested in technology didn’t have an opportunity to make it a core focus in high school.

Robert Moore, a 15-year-old student, describes SITA as “the chance of a lifetime.” Kathryn Preuss, a 16-year-old junior, concurs. “IT Academy is one of the most important things in my life,” she says. “Computers are my passion, and I will succeed in life.”

By preparing students to get better jobs, increase their options in college and gear them toward leadership roles in technology, SITA offers students a unique opportunity to experience a different lane on the educational interstate.

“We’ve seen a dynamic change in students as a result of the program,” Rowland says, with more than a little pride. “They are taking ownership of their destiny.”

Melissa Tamberg is a technology-focused freelance writer based in San Diego.

Grant Application 101

Interested in getting funding for a school-within-a school program like the Stratford Information Technology Academy? Here’s how to get started:

• Visit the National Science Foundation Web site (www.nsf.gov), which offers a list of its grant opportunities. It’s important to understand the NSF’s funding mission prior to submitting a proposal.

• After selecting a grant program, get preliminary feedback from NSF program officers, who can offer general advice to first-time applicants.

• Contact NSF grantees with similar programs. Numerous grantees will offer advice and guidance on writing a winning proposal.

At a Glance

School: Stratford Information Technology Academy

Location: Part of Stratford Comprehensive High School in Nashville, Tenn.

Teachers: 10 full-time teachers with oversight from the Center for Information Technology at Nashville State Technical Community College

Students: 150 students chosen from the district’s 36 middle schools.

Funding: National Science Foundation and the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools