By Jennifer Wohlleb
In parts of Kentucky, the rock walls of mountains are often seen as keeping out opportunity. For Lee County Schools, those walls are what invited it in.
When a world-class rock climber, who also happens to work for Microsoft Corp., came to climb in Red River Gorge, she crossed paths with Lee County school board Chairman William Owens. What that led to was the often isolated-feeling school system being one of only four districts in the country – the only one on the East Coast – to pilot a Microsoft program aimed at improving digital literacy and computer science education in high schools.
PHOTO: Two Lee County High School students give their full attention to their Introduction to Computer Programming instructor on the screen, who is three time zones away.
“Microsoft is aware that there is a real lack of computer science courses available to high school students,” said John Profitt, Lee County Schools’ technology director. “Part of that is because we don’t have teachers qualified to teach computer science, especially in rural areas. The project is essentially grow-a-teacher.”
Microsoft developed TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools) to bring together volunteer Microsoft employees to team-teach with local teachers in districts unable to meet students’ computer science needs on their own. According to the TEALS Web page, in 2010 computer science represented only .6 percent of all AP tests taken, even though five of the top 10 fastest-growing jobs are computer related. Microsoft said one of the problems is finding qualified teachers willing to essentially take a 70 percent pay cut compared with a computer-industry job.
In Lee County’s case, the teaching is done remotely by a Microsoft volunteer from Redmond, Wash., where Microsoft is headquartered.
“They have sourced an industry professional, someone who is qualified to teach the course, and they bring them in through distance learning technology to teach this,” Profitt said. “Our local teacher is basically facilitating this course this year, but he is learning enough so he can teach it in future years. After this two-year pilot, we’ll be able to take this material and offer it to our students with our own local teacher.”
Beginning this month, Audrey Sneizek, the Microsoft rock climber, will return to the area for the next three months to help teach the class on site.
Superintendent Jim Evans said Microsoft is not just providing classroom lessons for the students.
Program leaders “were actually in the district last week, and they did sit down with the individual kids and talked to them about career options,” he said.
“They talked to them about how after their second year of college, they could actually apply for an internship with Microsoft. There are things this could lead to for our students.”
Lee County High School Principal Mark Murray said those opportunities could eventually lead to greater economic prosperity for the area.
“These young men and women with this kind of training could remain right here in Lee County, Ky., do their work long distance and be leaders in their community well into the future,” he said. “I think that is one of the greatest selling points of this particular program is that they can work right here and never have to leave these mountains. They are going to provide us with a tax base and maybe new businesses, just a number of things that will build Beattyville, Ky. I think that’s one of the greatest rewards we have from this venture.”
This year’s class of eight students is taking Introduction to Computer Programming.
“The kids are all excited, they’re up for it – they’re up for anything that’s a challenge,” said Owens, the board chairman. “We had some of these students that we didn’t have anything to challenge them. From talking to some of them, I think they are really going to do well. They’ve got some from the top of the class and some who are hard workers. It’s open to anyone who wants to be in the class.”
Profitt said by the end of the introductory course, students will have a basic understanding of what computer programming is and what its languages are.
The pilot will continue next year with a more advanced class and eventually, maybe an AP computer science class.
“I think this is giving kids opportunities that we couldn’t give them otherwise and prepare them for the workforce,” Evans said. “We don’t have the teaching staff to offer this kind of course or training to our kids.”
– Click here to read about Lee County's high speed Internet accessibility issues.