Schools Open for Business

While many students undertake business case studies involving theoretical marketing or distribution questions, students in an Orange County, Va., venture are busy meeting production quotas for the hundreds of personal computers they build during the school year and designing World Wide Web pages for real clients in their small rural community.

In Orange County, which is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 30 miles northeast of Charlottesville, the fundamentals for the county's 3,800 students include reading, writing, arithmetic and information technology. Like thousands of others across the country, the county's schools have computer laboratories and begin exposing students to technology in kindergarten.

However, in Orange County, school officials are striving to ingrain the vocational skills of the IT industry into the curriculum. The school system has set up a hardware-based venture that functions as an equipment manufacturer and also has a software-focused media production business. The high school also is graduating students certified nationally in networking and computer repair.

"An understanding and an application of technology is just a basic now for students in any school system," said Dennis Kellison, superintendent of the Orange County School System. "Given that technology is a basic, how do we work this into the career development, the vocational development of students? If we are creating a work force that is technologically literate, we're supplying the marketplace."

The marketplace, in this case, is not necessarily the larger technology industry, with its well-publicized worker shortage, or even the regional industry, with a booming IT industry just hours away surrounding Washington, D.C. Instead, the county's schools are fostering a constantly renewable source of services and personnel for the community.

The Business of Business

In a refurbished textile mill across town from the high school, junior and senior students work at Hornet Technologies (named after the school mascot). They dress in uniforms and clock in before they go to work on the hundreds of computer systems, accessories and peripherals they will build this school year.

The business, which is the sole supplier of computers for the school system and is a licensed reseller in the state, built 150 computers during the past school year. The business first opened in an 800-square-foot-trailer behind the high school but now boasts 6,000 square feet and will double its PC production this year to 300 machines, said John Woods, director of Hornet Technologies.

"This was a way to provide training to the kids in both the technology skills and the entrepreneurial spirit," Woods said. "Before the product is done, before we ship it, it's got to go through quality control. There's a lot of motivation for the kids...compared to if we were just doing this in some classroom."

Computers produced by Hornet Technologies are shipped to its main client and the owner of the business, the school system. Kellison estimates that the venture is saving the school system between $200 and $300 per computer. That cost savings also is helping keep the student/computer ratio as low as three students per computer. Many industry observers note that school systems on average are struggling to drop below a ratio of 10 students per computer.

The school-based enterprise also has begun building computer systems for teachers and soon will add the Orange County government to its growing list of clients.

Before students can begin working at Hornet Technologies, they must fill out job applications. Their grades are based on regular performance reviews modeled on real-world job evaluations, Woods said. Before beginning PC production, they receive extensive training in aspects of hardware and software, learning about individual components and how they can be put together to create a functioning machine.

"When a student is finished here, they have actual documented work history with a technology company," Woods said.

In addition to accumulating work history in the technology field, students also can apply their training to industry standards for PC technicians. The school system will absorb the cost of the national certification for PC repair for any student who passes the exam. Woods estimates that perhaps 10 students will be prepared for the exam at the end of this school year.

Several student workers already have seen a demand in the community for their skills. Some have worked part time in computer operations and PC support at Von Holtzbrinck Publishing Services, the country's seventh-largest publisher, which has a back office and distribution center in Gordonsville, Va.

Michael Shareck, VHPS' senior vice president of operations in Orange County, said he found the students to be "very capable and gifted" at their work for his firm and would be eager to hire additional students from the technology program if the opportunity arises, he said.

"We were truly getting value out of it," Shareck said.

"It's a progressive activity. There are not that many places in the country sponsoring this type of initiative. It's difficult to get the special types of skills that you need. We would look at [students] as being future members of our work force."

Media Is the Message

Following its success with the PC business, the county now offers its students the opportunity to learn Web page design, multimedia authoring and desktop publishing. Students can learn such skills in a digital media production class and as employees of Hornet Media, a similar enterprise to Hornet Technologies.

Just in its first year of operation, Hornet Media has garnered five clients from the community for its Web page design and multimedia presentation design services, said Jim Yurasits, director of digital media production for the school system.

"They get paid in dollar points for the work they do," he said. "My tests I call certifications. It costs them 50 dollar points to take the test, but they get back 250 if they pass. I'm gearing the whole class to trying to simulate the business world. The students take it as though it were an employable position."

Yurasits said several students are planning to try to seek employment in the field right out of high school, while plan to search for an employer who would finance college education.

Megan Junghanns, a 16-year-old junior at Orange County High School who just began her second semester of work with Hornet Technologies, said she is focusing

on a career in information technology and has been offered a summer job in PC support at the U.S. Defense Department.

Her interest in the field was sparked after studying multimedia in the eighth grade. Junghanns said she plans to take the national exam to be certified as a PC technician at the end of this school year. The job offer came this year when Hornet Technologies was invited to present its program to a Virginia technology commission.

"I was basically offered a job at the Pentagon working and doing a lot of what I've done in Hornet Technologies," Junghanns said. "I was totally surprised. Here I am supposed to be showing off our company, and I'm getting offered a job somewhere else."

Economic Development

While the sweeping goal of the school system's technology program is to train the county's students in skills that will serve them well in the Information Age, organizers also see their efforts as a means to attract new businesses to the community.

When partners at Shackelford, Honenberger, Thomas, Willis and Gregg, the county's oldest law firm, decided to market its legal services via the Web, they hired Hornet Media for the job because they wanted a local company with employees who would be in tune with the community they were targeting, said Christopher Honenberger, the managing partner of the 130-year-old firm and president of the Orange County Economic Development Corp. The firm soon will be inspecting preliminary Web page designs from the school-based enterprise.

Honenberger noted that the two Hornet concerns not only will help the community in its effort to persuade citizens to buy locally and support the local tax base, but they will bolster the county's position in the always-fierce competition to attract new businesses to the area.

"We're competing with 100 other counties in Virginia and 49 other states," Honenberger said. "When we're looking to attract business and industry, these types of programs are critical.

"If we can tell them that we have a well-prepared work force and we have an ongoing training system in our school system, it makes our community very attractive to businesses."

In addition, Honenberger noted that producing highly skilled technology workers could enable the county to compete to attract niche IT companies despite the absence of the large population base usually required to support industrial site shoppers.

"Traditionally, you have to have a critical mass of people to have big jobs and good jobs," he said. "We could create a technology base here and have 20 little technology centers in our industrial park. We would like to maintain the quality of life and the bucolic nature of our community. Perhaps we are on the verge of figuring out a way for both the rural and agricultural setting and high-tech business to co-exist."

-- Heather Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.


Community Outreach

In addition to schooling the Orange County's students in information technology, the school system's teachers offer more than 30 classes to the community in word processing, Microsoft Corp.'s PowerPoint and Windows, and other IT skills.

More than 500 citizens took advantage of these programs last year, said David Matt, the school system's technology coordinator. Now the school system is developing a program to allow businesses to send employees to the Hornet Technologies and Hornet Media for training.

"This training program has been a big boost to raise the interest in technology and the computer in this small farming community," Matt said. "Now we have the business community knocking on our door saying, 'Training. We want training.' "

In addition, students who have been trained in the school's technology programs work to staff the county's newly formed community help desk, which is open for anyone in the community to get answers to technology-related questions.

"What we're trying to do is really emphasize the customer service end with students," Matt said. "They're going to have to learn to discuss the fix in a way that someone who is not technologically advanced can understand."

-- Heather Harreld


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