Lee County Schools began its partnership with Microsoft in 2012 when it was one of four schools in the nation to be a pilot site for the corporation’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program.
Through its involvement with TEALS, Lee County Schools has grown the program from six students in the first year to more than 60 this year. During that time, the district has added an AP computer science course; became the first district in the state to offer a Computer Science Career Pathway; sent students to Washington State to visit Microsoft and other companies; and now offers a computer science class to its eighth graders.
Lee County Schools students Gram Durbin (foreground) and Ethan Smith (back) have some fun during last spring’s visit to Facebook. Photos provided by Lee County Schools
And now the district can add KSBA’s Public Education Achieves in Kentucky (PEAK) Award to the list. The PEAK Award, given twice yearly, was established in 1997 to focus statewide attention on outstanding public school efforts that enhance student learning skills and promote the positive impact of public elementary and secondary education in Kentucky.
“The TEALS program is a great example of a district working to fill the workforce needs of the 21st century,” said Hope McLaughlin, KSBA’s director of government relations and one of the PEAK judges. “It’s good to see superintendents and boards of education working together to bring these important STEM-related opportunities to their students.”
The program was developed to combat the computer scientist shortage in America’s workforce by bringing computer science education to high schools that otherwise would not be able to provide the curriculum.
The story of how Lee County Schools was able to form a partnership with Microsoft bears repeating. Board Chairman William Owens met a Microsoft employee who was in the area rock climbing four years ago. When she mentioned her company was looking for school districts to work with, Owens set up a meeting with her and Superintendent James Evans, and the district’s partnership with the technology giant was born.
Owens admits he didn’t know then that the program would have the impact that it’s had for Lee County students.
“I was just wanting to offer something to our kids that we didn’t have,” he said. “I had no idea that it would take off in such a way.”
Owens said it’s important for the Internet availability to continue to improve in the county to allow students the opportunity to do the work outside of school. Owens, who has been working with AT&T on Internet expansion, estimates that about 25-30 percent of students have Internet access at home, up from an estimated 5-10 percent when the TEALS program began.
“We’re getting there at a snail’s pace, but we’re a lot better than we were four years ago,” the school board chairman said.
The district has graduated from being a pilot program to being a TEALS Alumni site. Instead of having Microsoft engineers online with the students every day, they are available as a resource. Lee County High School now has a full-time computer science teacher, Joy Neace.
“Our program is teaching students skills which are very important to their futures,” Neace said. “It is preparing our students to enter a job market where over 50 percent of jobs require computer proficiency. It is also preparing students to pursue their individual interests while using coding to help them in their chosen profession through the creation of websites or apps.”
Students in the program learn how to code and learn at least one computer language, among other things. Neace said that students in the TEALS program can graduate high school as a Microsoft-certified system developer and/or receive three to seven hours of college credit for computer science classes.
“Graduates of our program are prepared to go to computer science programs in colleges, create websites for businesses, and/or work for a company in their tech department,” said Neace, who noted most of the tech department jobs would require at least a bachelor’s degree.
In addition to classroom learning, 24 students have traveled to the Seattle area during the past three years to visit corporations, including Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Boeing.
Owens, who has made all three trips to Washington with the students, said they’ve been great experiences for the students and have provided them a chance to ask questions and see what they can do with the computer science training.
“It was an amazing trip, and it introduced my classmates and me to experiences that we otherwise would never have gotten,” said Justin Austin, a former Lee County student who participated in the TEALS program. “Speaking with some employees from the tech companies solidified my intent to pursue computer science as a career.”
Austin joined the program his senior year and is now a sophomore studying computer science at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I had a very strong foundation thanks to TEALS, and this helped me considerably in my first computer science course in college,” Austin said. “This program changed my life, and I am forever grateful.”
Evans said providing the opportunities for the students was the goal from the beginning.
“I think we’ve provided them an opportunity they may not have had, given our location and this region, rural eastern Kentucky,” Evans said. “But I don’t think the kids should be limited because of where we live, so that’s been a benefit. I think it’s a program that is showing great interest and we’re growing, which is very positive.”