Thinking Outside the Classroom

Innovative IT Program Boots Up at South Sutter Charter

News Center – September 2021


High-tech = High checks.

It’s an equation for career success, and the students of South Sutter Innovative Education Management (IEM) Charter School are doing the math.

The Charter is a non-classroom-based K12 where students learn from home and through partnering vendors. The institution serves 2,500 students, from Butte to Sacramento and Yolo to Placer counties, offering cutting-edge instruction in a unique and largely virtual environment.

But being remote doesn’t mean losing their edge. This fall, South Sutter launched a new Information and Communication Technologies-Digital Media (ICT-DM) pathway that’s already preparing high schoolers with the hard and soft skills they need to land high-paying IT jobs.

“It’s very exciting, not only because I’m getting ahead of the curve, but also because of the freedom it gives me to choose the career path I want,” beams K.T., a tech-minded junior who is considering becoming a programmer. “I’m in this program to get a better idea of what career I would like to pursue.”

The IEM Charter began developing the pathway a few years ago when research indicated that direct classroom-to-career pathways were increasingly in demand. The IT program is designed to give students like K.M. access to real-world career training before entering the workforce.

“The impetus was looking at some of our data,” explains Dan La Bar, Education Support Coordinator at the nonprofit IEM, which operates non-classroom-based charter schools like South Sutter throughout the state. He says a sizable percentage of students were diving straight from high school into the workforce, begging the question: “Can we do something more for them to give them skills?”

The goal was for graduates to vault over minimum wage jobs, skipping the line and starting higher on the career ladder. While the remote setup was obviously not ideal for subjects like welding and agriculture, administrators realized they could still prepare students for in-demand jobs.

The need for future, tech-savvy professionals remains high, says La Bar, and continues to climb. In fact, according to a recent article by Business Insider on the 30 Best High-Paying Jobs of the Future, tech careers like information security analysts and software developers dominate.

“The demand in IT and Digital Media is kind of a slam dunk,” says La Bar. “IT is basically integrated into everything now, so if you can program, it’s like a superpower.”

The high school’s four new ICT-DM pathways offer a head start in future-focused careers. Learners looking to go the high-tech route can choose Programming and Software Development. Meanwhile, management-minded prospects can access the Information Support and Services program, which gives students a strong Microsoft foundation to become executive assistants and office managers.

For more versatile opportunities, learners can plug into Network Systems to launch cybersecurity or network systems specialist tracks. Alternatively, they can pursue Web and Digital Communications, which includes pathways in web design and game design and animation.

Courses are furnished by eDynamic Learning’s cutting-edge online CTE training, affording the school added versatility for offering industry-standard curricula.

“This approach allows us to act quickly and creatively to offer our students timely education that matches our employers’ needs,” says ICT-DM Regional Director of Employer Engagement Wendy Porter.

Porter is hosted at Butte College, which helped the charter school develop the new program. She welcomes South Sutter’s innovative effort as a means of boosting accessibility for rural and remote students.

“This type of CTE pathway is critical for our schools to help augment their classroom offerings with more flexible learning options — especially in the high-demand tech space.”

Strong Workforce funding was critical in launching the program, affording a higher tier of curriculum and offering devices to students in need. Says La Bar, “We wouldn’t be able to do a lot of these things without the grant funding, which is really going to enhance the program.”

Classes debuted in August, and according to CTE Instructor Stacey Lewis, expectations are already high: “We’re really excited — we had our first class yesterday.”

While students will receive their CTE training through eDynamic, they’ll also take Lewis’ “Future-Ready Skills” course on career exploration and leadership. As the instructor says, “It’s what employers are really looking for.”

The class employs the “Get Focused, Stay Focused” curriculum, which helps students map out possible future careers. Learners break down the path to their dream jobs into short- and long-term goals, with the flexibility to evolve those targets over time as their interests shift.

“The students are going to be guided step-by-step to create a 10-year plan for themselves,” explains Lewis. “They’ll have access to it online basically forever.”

As a complement to the curriculum, students will also enroll in SkillsUSA to participate in leadership training and take their education into their own hands. As Lewis says, “We’re going to have student officers, and they are going to decide what activities we want to do through the SkillsUSA program.”

Made possible through Strong Workforce support, the SkillsUSA program empowers learners to set up events like leadership conferences, competitions and guest speaker days. While Lewis acts as a coach and facilitator, it’s the students themselves that take the helm.

“We’re only the second non-classroom-based school to support a chapter through SkillsUSA,” says La Bar.

First-year students in the program build a strong foundation with career and leadership training while also completing an introductory class touching on all the CTE tracks.

“They can really get an understanding for all the different areas and be able to make their choice from there,” says Lewis. “It will be really great that these kids, from an early age, are already very career-focused on what they want to do.”

It’s the kind of curriculum Lewis wishes she could have had as a teen, and she is looking forward to helping students navigate career choices in the sector. And with industry salaries surging, she says the opportunities are tremendous:

“For our Web and Digital Communication pathway, we’re letting students know that your average salary for that job force is $65-90,000 a year.”

The program also offers industry-standard certifications to give students a jump on career and college. From ICT Programming and Logic to CompTia Security+ and NOCTI Network Systems, young learners can choose from 25+ certifications usually only accessible to much older students. Exam fees are covered by Strong Workforce support, making these certifications even more attainable.

Currently, plans are underway to allow learners to stack these certifications toward college credit with several partnering post-secondary institutions.

“The more college credits you can get in high school, the better,” says La Bar. “Saving time and money, that’s number one. College is not getting any cheaper. And two, they’re building their resumes.”

Learners couldn’t agree more. According to student A.M., “It’s super exciting to have a head start.”

A.M. is interested in computer development, coding, and web development, and the student is delighted to take part in the new classes: “I can be ahead,” says the sophomore, “and I will know my career path sooner!”

The ground-breaking program has already enrolled 45 students and compiled a waitlist more than a dozen names deep. With that momentum in place, the hope is to continue to grow ICT-DM along with demand. And according to Porter, there’s never been a more opportune time.

“Careers in the tech space, especially in cybersecurity, are on an exponential growth trajectory,” says the regional director. “By offering these CTE pathways in high school, we can attract students earlier in their education to this growing field and get them the skills they need sooner to pursue a lucrative career.”


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