"I wish they'd taught me that in high school."
It's a common lament among adults, who often regret that they didn't graduate with tangible skills for real-world tasks as varied as understanding mortgages, filing taxes and keeping their computers up and running.
But today, in many schools, students are acquiring some of these tangible skills, boosting their résumés before they graduate and even earning income along the way.
Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Fla., for example, has been offering programs that allow its students to earn certification in popular computer applications since 2009. Through the school's career and technical education programs — Academy for Technology Excellence, Academy for Digital Excellence, and Academy for Game Design and Programming Excellence — DHS students can graduate with up to 24 certifications in Adobe applications, as well as Cisco Systems and Microsoft products.
Denise Spence, head of the DHS technology/business department, says students develop facility in such programs as Adobe Flash, Photoshop and Dreamweaver. They can earn Adobe Certified Associate status, which validates entry-level skills, and go on to earn Adobe Certified Expert status, which certifies professional-level knowledge of the software. Such credentials give students skills they'll put to use in college and beyond — and also make them marketable.
"Many of our students are tapped by businesses all over the county to do side work, including web development, illustration and other jobs," Spence says. "Because our students have certifications that our business partners and the community know about, they are regularly offered such opportunities, allowing them to try out their skills in the real world and get paid for it."
Educators whose schools offer such certifications cite numerous benefits.
At DHS, students have access to an onsite testing center, which means they don't have to travel elsewhere to test for their Adobe certifications. The certification program is good for students, of course, but it also puts "a giant spotlight on all the good things we're doing, which makes students want to come here," Spence explains, noting that DHS first began offering the programs under a magnet school grant. "It also caught the attention of the business community, which now offers its support and opportunities for students to have real jobs and internships before they graduate."
Others say certification is a natural culmination of programs that offer real-world computer skills.
"Students need to learn practical skills in the classroom," stresses Dan Armstrong, a graphic arts teacher at Lake City High School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The school's 1,300 students can earn college credits for their Adobe certification work under an agreement it negotiated with a local university. LCHS also has its own testing center, which was established in 2008.
"That was just about the time the state required a technical skills assessment, such as certification, to continue to qualify for state-funded programs," Armstrong says of the testing center's origins. "If you don't do certification for your kids, you may not qualify for state funding. Everybody in Idaho is doing it now, but those schools that don't set up a testing center, as we did, find themselves at the mercy of other testing sites." That can spell scheduling nightmares for students.
Armstrong says approximately five LCHS students earn their Adobe credentials each year, which differentiates them from their peers in important ways. "Now, someone has a reason to hire that kid instead of the next kid," he explains. "That's why we do this. It makes our kids different. They have certification and two years of classroom experience that's very hands-on. These are kids who have tangible skills."
The value of such training is indisputable, he adds. For example, when the parent of a student started a social networking company, Armstrong provided a list of LCHS students who had certification. "He interviewed about 60 people and hired 13; 10 of them were students from the school's Business Technology Program," Armstrong says.
The More You Know
Certification used to be something that professionals earned to boost their careers. But today, students are going through the process too. According to Melissa L. Jones, worldwide education program manager at Adobe, "about 200,000 young people worldwide" are certified Adobe software users.
The reasons are manifold, Jones continues. "It's an uncertain time to be a student, and it's hard to know what skills will be needed in tomorrow's workforce," she explains. "What students need now is a way to showcase what they can do and how they can demonstrate their skills and knowledge."
Offering Adobe certification isn't a painful process for schools. In fact, it's quite easy, Jones says. "We have great support staff who can help any school that's interested in establishing a testing center. School officials decide for themselves what exams to offer and how to administer them. All that's needed is access to Adobe software. What's more, Adobe offers free curriculum and training programs for teachers through its Adobe Education Exchange community."
DHS's Spence says certification offers students a way to demonstrate "a great foundation of knowledge and helps add that extra layer to college applications and employment opportunities."
It also can trigger an interesting ripple effect. Certification, for some students, "becomes a fever," she explains. "Once a student earns one, they want more, and they'll enroll in as many classes as they can to get those certifications. They know that in the end, there's tremendous value."
Setting Up Shop
Schools that offer Adobe certifications to their students only need access to Adobe software to get started. But many say they're approached by local businesses to do paying work, and that requires offering a wider variety of equipment to students.
Denise Spence, head of the technology/business department at Dunbar High School in Fort Meyers, Fla., says students enrolled in the school's certification programs use Wacom Bamboo tablets, Epson scanners and an HP Designjet large-format printer, along with desktop computers and monitors.
Dan Armstrong, a graphics arts teacher at LCHS, says it's not difficult to get started, but teachers often don't know where to start. "We spent a few months setting up the certification program," he recalls.
Simplifying the process as much as possible, he adds, "is how you get more kids to become certified."