Cypress Creek High School uses certification to prepare teens for real-world jobs
Posted on
May 1, 2017

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Students at a Florida high school are getting a leg up from certification.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead was on to something when she said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." History is filled with instances of small groups of dedicated people bucking the odds and ignoring the naysayers.

One impressive example is Rotary International, a worldwide service organization that brings business and professional leaders together to take action and create positive lasting change. Rotary International's humble beginnings were in Chicago, in 1905, when four local businessmen met to discuss ways they could make the city more livable.

Their organizational motto is appropriately "Service Above Self," and over the ensuing 112 years the Rotarians have increased in size and more than lived up to that rallying cry. One of their most significant accomplishments has been immunizing 2.5 billion children against polio.

Another small group working hard to make their corner of the world a better place is the Career and Technical Education department (CTE) at Cypress Creek High School in Orlando, Fla. Patricia Breeding, Career Development Coordinator for the Orange County Public School District, calls the instructors "rock stars" who are helping students gain the knowledge and skills to enter (and succeed in) the workforce.

Chris Canone, CTE Department Head, leads a tight-knit team of dedicated instructors determined to pave the road to success for their students. "Our mission is to prepare students with tools and certifications that they can use right away," said Canone.

"Certifications that look good on an application now, but even better on a resume later ... ultimately skills that can earn them money immediately."

The CTE team isn't shy about their mission and accomplishments. Each day of the week, except for Wednesdays, they wear brightly-colored T-shirts emblazoned with the department logo. (What happens on Wednesday? More about that in a moment.)

"I'm an extrovert and in this case I want to let everyone in the school, and the county, know what our students are achieving," said Canone. "We want people to know of the big things these students are doing and that they are becoming successful."

Certification came later

Established in 1992, CTE focused on business classes as a way to prepare students for the workforce. Originally, certifications weren't a part of the program. That all changed in 2014 when Canone arrived and began streamlining the program utilizing certifications as a way to validate students' knowledge and abilities.

CTE students have the opportunity to earn certifications in yearlong classes in four areas: Digital Information Technology (DIT), Digital Design, Accounting, and Cybersecurity. The classes are heavily self-paced with the instructors directing the students to stay on course to be successful. Students can move as rapidly as they want.

First-year students are required to complete the DIT class, where they can earn the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification by mastering Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access. "Completing the DIT class and earning MOS certification gives the students a solid base and helps them make sure they want to participate in what we are doing in the other classes," said Canone.

Upon successful completion of DIT, students move on to any of the other three classes with accompanying certifications. Digital Design students have the option to earn certifications in Adobe Suite products like Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator, while accounting students can achieve a QuickBooks certification.

Certification leads to more certification

Students at a Florida high school are getting a leg up from certification.

Cyber Security is CTE's most popular class. Three years ago there were only 18 students in the class — this year, enrollment boomed to more than 70. To help students see the IT opportunities available to them, the class starts out by focusing on hardware, software and networking before transitioning into cybersecurity.

Students typically earn CompTIA A+ and Network+ certifications. "We start them with these two certs, but it's the security portion of the class that sells them on the program," Canone said. "They get excited when I explain the progression of certifications and they see how far they can go."

2015 was the first year that students began earning the various certifications. This year, almost 300 are on track to achieve one or more certifications, with more than half earning a valuable MOS certification.

DIT instructor Candace Paramore is a believer in the advantages of an MOS Certification to make anyone a better student and valuable entry-level employee. "MOS certifications are a positive step in the right direction for our students."

The certifications are making a difference. Students looking for their first jobs have confidence that they possess the knowledge and skills to be successful. Digital Design students have found jobs working in design and marketing; Cyber Security students are working in a number of computer technician positions.

Get a cert, climb the ladder

Students who are already employed, often find that certification leads to more responsibility and opportunity. "We had a student last year who worked in a (medical clinic). He received a promotion into the accounting and finance department once he became Quickbooks certified. He also received a pay raise along with that promotion," said accounting instructor Whitney Kelly.

New students soon realize that earning a certification isn't a walk in the park. Learning the subject matter is only the first step, they still have to be cleared by an instructor. In order to sit for the certification exam, each student is required to pass a number of practice exams with a certain score. "Students take certification exams when we know they are ready," said Canone.

For the most part, the classes are self-paced with the instructors keeping students focused and moving ahead. Naturally, there are those students who thrive and want to move as quickly as possible.

"There are students who choose to work at a quicker pace, even completing coursework from home," said Digital Design instructor Hayley Calhoon. "These students understand the value of the content and certifications being offered to them and are anxious to take advantage of the opportunity by earning as many certifications as they are able."

Do the work, dress the part

At the start of each school year, Cypress Creek's 3,000 students and 300 faculty and staff are each assigned a laptop. In order to meet the challenges of so many computers, CTE's top-level IT students have the opportunity to earn internship hours working for the school's computer help desk fixing software and hardware issues.

Troubleshooting and repairing this many laptops gives students valuable hands-on experience solving real computer problems. It also shortens the time that anyone is without a computer, and in the process saves the school thousands of dollars.

In addition to helping students earn career-enhancing certifications, CTE instructors also teach important job searching and career skills. Wednesdays are dress-for-success days, the one day the team doesn't wear T-shirts. Instead they, and all of their students, come to school dressed in business casual.

"It's important that students know how to dress for interviews and on the job," said Canone. "We also teach resume writing, interviewing, and career exploration."

As part of the effort to give students real-world experience, CTE works closely with the district to place students who have completed their junior year in summer internships with various county departments. The school district's goal for this summer is to hire 20 cybersecurity students to maintain, reimage and clean every laptop in the district.

As the Career Development Coordinator, Breeding is responsible for placing students in internships and for reaching out to local IT companies. "Our IT students are very talented. Many of them are already designing web pages for various companies," she said. "For students in IT, the opportunities are endless. Interning with local IT departments helps the companies and gives the students some solid work experience to include on their resumes."

Everyone is involved

Parents are also solidly behind CTE's efforts. Eighth-grade students and their parents recently visited the school and were able to learn about the programs. The parents were suitably impressed. "They can't believe we offer this stuff in high school now," said Canone. "They were amazed at the opportunity for their students to earn valuable certifications and real life experience."

The district also has an articulation program with local colleges for students to receive credits based on the certifications earned in high school. "Students can earn enough credits to cover a semester of college. Parents see they are saving some money and are all about it," said Canone.

Although CTE functions in an efficient and effective manner, team members do mention feeling some frustration at the limited amount of time they are able to work with students, and the need for more equipment.

"I get my students for 45 minutes at a time and that includes getting them organized," said Canone. "With more time we could do even more. And we always need more computer equipment. Online labs definitely help, but more hands-on equipment will help more kids buy into the idea of an IT career."

Teaching — no greater call

Students at a Florida high school are getting a leg up from certification.

Surprisingly, none of the CTE instructors came to the program with extensive IT backgrounds. Their primary experience was in sales and marketing, bookkeeping, and customer service. But what they lacked in IT experience they more than made up for in commitment and passion to help students. "The strength of this team is the passion to see the students succeed," said Canone.

Canone himself was in the midst of a successful 15-year sales career — pitching everything from telecommunications to pharmaceuticals — when he felt the calling to teach. "I wanted to be helping kids. Help them with direction and education. It was a calling for what I felt passionate about."

Fortunately, Canone had a supportive wife who told him to "quit waiting and go do it. Be happy." Canone is clearly following his heart and being happy.

In the process of guiding students on their certification journeys, the CTE team is preparing them for the future and changing their world for the better. "Certifications as a whole open up so many doors for students. Doors and opportunities that we never had," said Canone.

"Students, industries, and careers are different these days and a lot more competitive. If we can get our students qualified and certified before graduation it's a great head-start for them.

About the Author

Calvin Harper is a former associate editor of Certification Magazine and a veteran of the publishing industry.

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