Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Cisco Networking Academy Offers Opportunity

If you ask most parents and students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools about the Cisco Networking Academy courses for high school students, unfortunately you’ll hear, “Cisco What?” But if Jennifer Walker and her colleagues at Chapel Hill High have their way, the pathways within the Academy of Information Technology (AOIT) will soon be recognized throughout the district - and beyond. Walker is both passionate and tireless in her work with Cisco NetAcad, and to hear her talk about current and future projects is to recognize she’s barely gotten started as a mentor and teacher.
Within a couple years, labor analysts in the U.S. predict there’ll be over one million more tech jobs than qualified applicants to fill them. And the salary for many of these tech jobs? Often in the $80,000 to $110,000 range. It’s surprising that more high school students aren’t standing in line to enroll in these information technology (IT) pathways.
How are Chapel Hill High’s AOIT and Cisco Networking Academy courses laying foundations for students to join the ranks of the “quickly employed” tech workers? Students can now choose two Cisco course pathways, either CET (computer engineering technology) or NET (network engineering technology). Upon completion of the specialized courses in either pathway, students can sit for rigorous and prestigious industry certifications before graduating from high school. The district will even pay for one certification exam voucher for each student.     
The AOIT is housed at Chapel Hill High, but it’s open to all CHCCS high school students who can travel from their home schools to take the academy classes. The Cisco Networking Academy is an international training program accessible through universities, community colleges, and some high schools. It provides the curriculum and hands-on lab experiences for students, as well as resources to deliver and extend IT training for instructors.  From this framework, Walker provides students with an ever-growing range of activities, information about opportunities to apply skills outside the classroom, and she works with AOIT to provide internships. Cisco's IT Essentials in the Computer Engineering courses provides training in hardware, software, and troubleshooting skills, while preparing students for CompTIA A+ certification. Cisco's CCNA (Certified Cisco Network Associate) Routing and Switching curriculum is used in the Network Engineering courses, training students in the process of data transmission, network design, device configuration, and troubleshooting, while preparing students for the Cisco CCENT (Certified Cisco Entry Networking Technician) and CCNA certifications.
Walker teaches all of the Computer Engineering and Network Engineering courses at Chapel Hill High, and her enthusiasm about the Cisco curriculum and its enduring benefits to students is apparent in the first few minutes of conversation. She’s a true believer, based on more than fifteen years in the IT field, as well as ten years in previous instructional positions. The keyword for her is “Opportunity,” and she loves to reel off the many opportunities students can pursue to sharpen their networking and engineering skill sets.
Earning one or both of the “certs” by graduation is the crown jewel of Cisco NetAcad participation, but all of the students who complete one of the pathways are well-qualified to work in IT, right out of high school. In this district, as Walker notes, most students will continue to a four year university, but some NetAcad graduates pursue classes at community colleges, or take their skills into the military. “Even without the certs, by completing these courses, students can transfer their skill sets into any profession,” said Walker.
“Cisco Networking Academy is a very useful program that teaches you a lot about computer engineering and networking,” said Dhruv Patel, who’s currently taking both Computer Engineering 2 and Networking Engineering 1. “Paired with the lab work Ms.Walker sets up, it prepares you for the CompTIA A+ and the CCENT certifications and gives you skills for practical use, at home and on the job.”
Walker’s students frequently take advantage of service-learning opportunities, both in-district and in the community. “I say to them all the time, Use your skills for good.”
This year, she and Darren Bell, manager of the CHCCS Community Connection Program, have collaborated to create the Tiger Tech Squad with more than 35 of Walker’s students. The Squad will soon operate as a Chromebook service depot, beginning with tech support for the Career and Technical Education staff at Chapel Hill High, but they will expand that support in the future.
Walker encourages her students to earn service-learning hours - plus invaluable Real World experience - at events like Volunteer Night at the Kramden Institute in the Research Triangle Park. Students provide assistance to local residents through Kramden, performing tasks like desktop refurbishing and monitor testing.
“It’s great for these students to see their skill set has value. In three hours, you can give people something that can change their lives,” said Walker. “Students say, 'But it’s so easy to swap out a hard drive,' and I say - to you it is!”
Beyond the service opportunities touted by Walker, she is constantly sharing news about internships and scholarships for summer study. Her Twitter feed @LearnITWalker is a goldmine for students in search of (there’s that word again) opportunities: cybersecurity workshops, Virtual Reality instruction and UNC’s Imagine Lab are just a few of the recent links or posts shared.
Walker also brings in a regular slate of tech speakers from Lenovo, Cisco and other industry giants in the area, as well as creates informative field trips for students to observe and experience a range of IT professionals in action.
Liz Anderton is a sophomore in Computer Engineering Technology 1, and she described how fortunate she feels to have landed in the NetAcad, even as one of the few young women in Walker’s classes. “It can be a little intimidating being the only female in a class, but it’s interesting because sometimes they (her male classmates) just think differently.” Anderton said that she’s very shy and has tended to dislike group work in previous classes, but she thrives in the team-learning format of Walker’s class. “This experience has helped me be more open in general. Everyone is really encouraging, and it’s been amazing.”
Anderton moved to Chapel Hill from Tennessee before ninth grade. “There was never anything like this where I lived before,” she said. “Kids don’t realize how lucky they are to have these programs. And if more people sign up for NetAcad, we can grow and do even more things.”

The Cisco Networking Academy celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. According to its website “since 2005, more than 1.6 million students who have completed advanced courses have gotten new jobs thanks to Cisco Networking Academy. In the United States, 30 percent of enrolled students are underrepresented minorities (African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, or American Indian/Alaska Native), and numerous academies specifically serve military service members, veterans, and their families. Additionally, Cisco Networking Academy has made a commitment to benefit 10,000 people living with disabilities within the next five years.