- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2020

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - A dozen flyers are taped to the window of Jay Mathis’ computer lab at Blacksburg High School.

Each sheet, marked at the bottom with the logo of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, publicizes nuggets about various jobs in the broad field of computers. (For example: a duty of a cyber forensics expert is to investigate data breaches and security incidents.)

That job can earn a median annual salary of about $70,000 and requires a bachelor’s degree in either cybersecurity or computer science, according to the literature.

Next to that flyer is another on the job of cyber crime investigator. That job’s median salary is a few thousand dollars less, but requires no college degree.

The advertisements on the computer lab window aren’t there to just help drum up interest in Montgomery County Public Schools’ computer science curriculum.

Starting this semester, MCPS became the first Virginia school district to offer all of its high schoolers dual-enrollment computer science courses that will count as credit at a local community college - in this case, New River Community College.

The program could allow MCPS students - who also take other dual-enrollment courses - to simultaneously graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computer science.

Only a few students, however, will probably attain such as an accomplishment due to the fact that they would need to carefully map out their degree plans early, said Mark Husband, the school district’s director of career and technical education and business partnership.

“They essentially need to start planning that curriculum starting with their freshman year,” Husband said.

Husband said the program will cut the time needed to obtain an associate’s in computer science. He said MCPS graduates planning to attend Radford University could also earn a bachelor’s in computer science earlier due to the transfer agreement between the university and NRCC.

“They could start at Radford as a junior, directly out of high school,” he said. “It (the dual-enrollment program) gives students a lot of flexibility.”

Husband said the school district was encouraged to provide the dual-enrollment courses at each of its four high schools due to the success of the computer science curriculum at Blacksburg High.

“During our assessment of what curriculum had been working well, we identified the AP computer science curriculum,” he said.

“It happened very organically at BHS, based on student and teacher interest. So we tried to take something that was successful at one high school and make it available at our four high schools.”

The computer science dual-enrollment program fits into a larger MCPS campaign to help its students either get an early jump in a career or better navigate the often complex route of a four-year college education.

Funding from Montgomery County in recent years helped pave the way for MCPS graduates to take part in the Access to Community College Education program, another NRCC-affiliated initiative that covers tuition at the college.

To qualify for ACCE, students must graduate with a minimum 2.5 GPA, make acceptable NRCC placement test scores and volunteer for community service.

MCPS officials have viewed ACCE as a way for their graduates to significantly cut down on tuition costs if they plan to pursue the four-year college route.

The school district also sees ACCE as a way for students to learn trades such as nursing or welding free of tuition due to the fact that entry into the two fields doesn’t require a four-year college degree.

Next school year, MCPS plans to take another step with another NRCC partnership that will allow a handful of high school seniors to enroll in the community college’s two-year nursing program free of tuition.

The school district’s dual-enrollment computer science program comprises four online courses, said Mathis, the Blacksburg High-based teacher in charge of the program. Providing the courses online, he said, allows students at each of the district’s four high schools to take part in the program.

So far, only Blacksburg and Christiansburg High School students are enrolled, but Mathis anticipates students at Auburn and Eastern Montgomery high schools to take part in the near future.

The courses includes lessons on languages such as Python, which Mathis said has started to overtake Java as a popular programming language.

“We’re actually teaching them the most popular programming languages,” he said.

Mathis said working in computers is interesting because a four-year degree or even more advanced education isn’t always required. He said students who earn associate’s degrees can obtain entry-level jobs where pay can often start at about $47,000.

Mathis said the required education to enter computer science can vary widely due to the great variety of jobs in the fields.

“Computer science occupies such a wide range of skill sets,” he said.

Employment in computer and information technology is projected to grow by 12% between 2018 and 2028, a rate much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The median annual wage in computer and information technology occupations was $86,320 as of May 2018, higher than the median annual wage of $38,640 for all occupations, according to the BLS.

The federal agency reports that demands for workers in the field of computer and information technology will stem from greater emphasis on cloud computing, big data storage and collection, and information security.

“Our students will be employable in one of the high-paying, in-demand (fields),” said Montgomery County School Board Chairwoman Gunin Kiran.

“We have been working to create a variety of CTE (career technical education) pathways that meet the needs of all our students.”

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