Internet High School

San Francisco's Thurgood Marshall Academic High School is situated in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods. That also might be one way to describe its science curriculum, which, as part of a special program sponsored by Cisco Systems Inc., includes courses on advanced computer and data networking.

Marshall is one of Cisco's first "Networking Academy" partners, a program that aims to equip inner-city and rural high school students with employable skills while stocking the information technology work force. The company won kudos recently from the Clinton administration by pledging more than $2 million this year to expand the program into the nation's 15 "empowerment zones, " a presidential initiative to revitalize "distressed" communities.

"There are a lot of negative things people associate with our school," said Jai Gosine, a physics teacher who doubles as a computer networking instructor at Marshall. "But I tell my students that the last thing they need to do is worry about having to stay here. They need to think about moving on to see the world. And that's the thing about these networking academies: [The skills] can take them anywhere."

Cisco rolled out its Networking Academy curriculum last fall as a cooperative venture with select school districts-most of them in disadvantaged neighborhoods or rural areas far-removed from urban markets. "Network switches. Routers. Patch cables and punchdown blocks. RJ-45 jacks. Not your ordinary list of back-to-school supplies," reads a company document describing the program.

By the end of this year, it plans to invest an additional $2.1 million in curriculum, support, training and equipment for 60 more academies in national empowerment zones. Neither the empowerment zone program nor Cisco's Networking Academies are limited to the inner city. Rural North Carolina, North Dakota and Texas are on the list of areas where academies will be developed. In such places, the academies don't so much offer students a way out of the community but instead provide opportunities that will allow them to stay, officials said.

Staying On

"I think what will happen here is that students will be able to stay in their communities and work for a local company," said Clydene Stangvik, manager of administrative services for the Lakes Country Service Cooperative, a Fergus Falls, Minn., organization set up to obtain volume discounts for educational programs. "They will not always have to go to the [metropolitan area] to work."

The academies are the brainchild of Cisco senior consulting engineer George Ward. "Designing networks for schools was my primary job," he said. "Every time we went to look at any problems once a network was up, we would notice a total lack of skilled support for those networks. We then implemented a process to start training the staff, and that worked out well, but there was just not enough there. Schools don't have the staffs or budgets for this kind of training. That's when I started looking at the next source of capital that they had, and that was the kids."

Started as a 40-hour seminar that high school students could take in the summer, the program has developed into a formal 280-hour World Wide Web-based curriculum that takes students about four semesters to complete. "Once you finish, you are eligible to take Cisco's Networking Associate exam," said Ward, who claims that the skills instilled by the program cover technology used in 70 percent of all networks.

"We started the program looking at the inner-city students, who graduate with little or no employable skills," Ward said. "In some cases, these kids have no hope, and we wanted to help break the chain."

But the effort is more than philanthropic. Executives at the networking giant-Cisco boasts that 85 percent of the Internet runs on its products-will tell you that the effort makes good business sense.

"This is more a long-term investment in the future than an immediate payback for Cisco," said Kevin Warner, senior manager of education market development. "As far as any corporate philosophy behind the Networking Academies, I would point to the increasingly critical need from a human resource perspective that students gain skills that they can use in the 21st century."

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