With help from an elite, big-money grant, Louisa County High School is launching a virtual cybersecurity program next school year.
The Louisa school division is one of five school districts nationwide to receive $100,000 for the implementation of a cybersecurity academy. After two years, the division will have the chance to earn a $100,000 grand prize, competing against the other four finalists.
The money is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Rural Tech Project, which aims to help schools to start technology education programs customized for their students and local needs.
Creating the program has been on the Louisa division’s radar for some time.
Louisa schools Superintendent Doug Straley “really pushed us to apply for it because he knew that this could be the catapult that could push us forward,” said Kenneth Bouwens, director of STEAM and innovation for the division. “So it’s given us that forward momentum to really start that program.”
Other finalists include school systems in Kentucky, Texas, California and Michigan.
Students in the LCHS cybersecurity academy, which officials envision will be all virtual, will learn about securing a computer network and stop people from hacking it, as well as how to keep data safe. They’ll also have the opportunity to earn industry credentials and to gain on-the-job experience through internships.
“Our goal is to teach them about the basics of cybersecurity, and we want them to walk out with industry credentials in cybersecurity, so that they can go into an entry-level position with the company, or they can go on to further education at a two- or four-year university,” Bouwens said.
School officials chose to create a cybersecurity academy because of the increase in jobs in the field.
“The last thing you want to do is train a student in a job or career when they go out and they can’t find employment, so we really monitor all that [workforce] data,” Bouwens said. “We’re always looking ahead to see what the next big career opportunity is, and everything in cybersecurity networking right now is huge.”
He said that if the school can help students acquire the foundational knowledge and skills, students shouldn’t have a problem finding a job.
In Virginia, there are about 35,000 cybersecurity jobs that are not filled because there aren’t enough qualified applicants available, said Amanda Hester, assistant superintendent of instruction for Louisa County Public Schools.
“All it takes is an associate’s degree to make $80,000,” she said.
A team of administrators, including Bouwens and Hester, worked together to create the program and apply to be part of the Rural Tech Project.
“The relevancy and meaningfulness of it is so great that we’re excited to be able to bring this to Louisa and really move forward with it,” Hester said.
Straley said the funding gives the division the opportunity to create a program that they hope will better students’ lives.
“I think that’s what this is all about, and that’s what education is all about.” he said. “So we’re excited about this opportunity.”
Bouwens said they are planning to launch the program next year. Over the next two years, the U.S. Department of Education will work with the districts in the project to refine and improve their programs.
The $100,000 will go toward buying equipment for the program, including server racks; creating a network for students to store their data and course content; and creating the curriculum. The budget submitted for the application isn’t set in stone, so there is flexibility in how the money can be spent.
Hester said the news about the recent hack of the federal government, as well as how life moved online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, highlights the importance of the cybersecurity field.
“It goes from residential to corporate to military and government, but then it also goes anywhere from a common everyday student who has an interest in cybersecurity in computer networks,” Hester said.
Cybersecurity is more than just a government hack, she noted.
“It can be something as simple as personal identity, and if any of you have gone through having to deal with your own someone hacking into your own personal accounts, it’s a nightmare,” Hester said. “Just little nuances of learning how that works and how to protect yourself and others and build upon that is valuable just to an everyday citizen, let alone someone who wants to focus their education.”