Bartow launches distance-learning cybersecurity pathway at CHS


A new pathway being launched by the Bartow County School System could completely turn around the lives of some of its students.

A cohort of 25 second-semester juniors at Cass High School and their parents signed commitment agreements Tuesday night for a new cybersecurity pathway that will be the system’s first-ever distance learning class.

Beginning Jan. 8, the students will meet with their classroom instructor, career, technical and agricultural education teacher Matt Thompson, every day at 8:30 a.m. to learn about cybersecurity virtually from a trained teacher in Nevada.

CyberTec Academy, a Nevada-based company owned by retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. R. “Montana” Williams, will simultaneously train and certify Thompson and the first cohort through virtual learning.

“This rigorous program is a big deal,” Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page said. “We wanted our students and families to know this is not a typical high school class. This is a unique opportunity where our Colonels will participate in our first-ever distance learning course. They will learn from those who have prior national experience working for the White House and Department of Homeland Security. We are ‘virtually’ bringing the best to Bartow County in order to provide second-to-none enrichment opportunities to this special cohort and cohorts moving forward. It’s an exciting time for Bartow County students.”

For this cohort, the program is designed to be a three-semester course in which students take three certification exams over the first two semesters before participating in work-based learning opportunities during the third semester.

“This new distance learning opportunity will allow our students to earn three technology certifications – CompTIA A+, Network + and Security + – by the time they graduate,” Page said. “No other high school program in Georgia offers all three credentials.”

The superintendent said state Sen. Bruce Thompson presented him with the idea for a cybersecurity program in August.

“I knew it was a perfect partnership, given Sen. Thompson’s passion and the global shortage of cybersecurity professionals,” he said. “Employers are struggling to fill hundreds of thousands of cybersecurity-related roles in the U.S. every year. We want our children prepared and at the forefront of this booming industry.”

Thompson, chairman of the Senate Science and Technology Committee, said the idea for the program started a couple of years ago when he worked on the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in Augusta.

“This journey started nearly three years ago with a study committee I led focused on making Georgia the leading cybersecurity state in the country,” he said. “Our recommendations included the new GBI center, the Innovation Center in Augusta and cyber insurance for the state agencies. With over 300,000 cyber positions currently unfilled in the U.S., it was imperative to have the technical colleges and universities develop curriculum as post-secondary opportunities for the students.”

While the committee was exploring the issue, “I realized that there were kids who would never make it to college or trade centers that we are leaving out,” Thompson said.

“As the product of a challenging home life, I felt compelled to develop a program that offered true hope to those high school students that ‘longed to be chosen,’” he said.

The senator said he was able to get Williams, a longtime friend, to develop the curriculum for the high school program, then he approached Page about providing a school partner.

"He quickly said, 'I want to be this school,'" Thompson said. “I want to make sure — he did as well — that we are targeting the free and reduced lunch or at least that crowd of students. I wanted to be sure that the students that didn't get chosen in life for anything else, that they were the ones who were chosen to be able to make a difference.

“When you look at the benefits of this, not only from a human standpoint of giving people hope, but [we are] taking individuals and putting them into a position where they will be potential taxpayers vs. being recipients for the rest of their life."

Thompson secured funding for the first cohort at Cass through a state grant from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, and he said he’s looking at federal funding and private partnerships to fund future cohorts.

Page said Cass Principal Stephen Revard, his administration team and school counselors “took ownership of the vetting process” and carefully searched for 50 top-performing students in the junior class who met the criteria as potential candidates.

From that pool, 25 students were interviewed and selected to begin the pathway.

"This is a segment of the population that many times … they haven't ever been chosen,” Thompson said. “They are now. We have some kids that literally were signed up to drop out of school that said, 'You know what? I have hope. I want to stay in school.' And some of the testimonies were from guardians or parents saying one particular kid, they haven't been excited about anything in three years and now they're just jamming. They're excited."     

Laziya Johnson, 16, is one of the students who was chosen for the program.

“The reason I wanted to participate in the cybersecurity program is because I knew that I loved computers but didn’t have the tools to learn how to best work them,” she said. “Then the school showed me a way I can take part in something I always wanted to do.”

The junior said her interest in cybersecurity began developing when she was in middle school.

“I became interested in this field when I got into eighth grade and realized I need to start planning what I want to do with my life and noticing that technology takes a big place in our world, and the best way to help people is by protecting them in new ways,” she said. “That is what cybersecurity is for me.”

When the students complete the program in about 17 months, they will be qualified to work in cybersecurity – one of the Top 10 career fields in the country – for almost any organization, including the military, government agencies, health care facilities, financial institutions and global manufacturing firms.

“These students will immediately enter into the workforce as ‘high-demand’ candidates with salaries ranging from $32[,000] to $35,000 a year,” Thompson said.

Laziya said this is a “beyond-amazing opportunity, not just for me but for everyone that gets the chance to participate in this program.”

“I believe this because of how many people can find jobs right out of high school, [but] most jobs require more schooling beyond high school so that they can receive a degree to come back and do the job,” she said. “This sometimes can be really challenging because everyone cannot attend college right away but still wants the job. This program helps you get the job right out of high school so that you can better your life.”

Moving forward, the school system hopes to start each new cohort the first semester of their junior year to allow more time for students to participate in work-based learning opportunities, Page said.

At the end of the current school year, the system plans to certify other instructors and model a similar, non-virtual, state-funded program at Adairsville and Woodland high schools.

“Due to funding and technology, we hope by 2021, this program will be offered in all Bartow County high schools,” Page said.

Thompson said the program is “not a one-and-done.”

“This is something that I am looking at,” he said. “I already have schools contacting me, asking to do it. We need to make sure we get this right. We're playing with kids' lives. We want to get this right. We want to make sure they have mentors. I've already talked to several businesses about the work-based learning part once we get down that road.”