Walk into Landstown High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and you'll see some students who are not going to class. Instead, they're heading off to work at The Firm.
In reality, it's a "virtual enterprise," but one that's designed in both curriculum and physical structure to represent the kind of office environment that students may encounter when they enter the workforce. It's a portion of the school's STEM program that puts a strong focus on teaching valuable skills-especially computer technology skills built around Microsoft products and training that's part of the Microsoft IT Academy.
The Firm was a key factor in the creation of an academy program focusing in IT for the Virginia Beach metropolitan area. Lisette Diehl, coordinator for the Governor's STEM Academy and the Technology Academy-two separate programs with about 400 students within the 2,200-student population at Landstown-was behind much of the initiative. She says The Firm reflects an effort to provide students with rigorous training for real-world jobs, including positions that can lead them into computer programming and IT positions.
Students at "The Firm" – a class designed as an office environment within Landstown High School in Virginia Beach.
"We developed traditional S.T.E.M. classes with a strong emphasis on core classes like science and math, but we also had a lot of support for teaching business-oriented classes," Diehl says. "Initially there was a focus on accounting, but that shifted more to IT classes as it became clearer that there was a strong demand for young people with computer skills."
Joining The Firm in the Academy is almost as demanding as getting a job at a real company. Students go through an application process that includes submitting transcripts and recent test scores, writing an essay, and getting four recommendations from teachers and parents. They also have to select and complete three projects from a proposed list of 12 and submit them electronically.
There's a long wait list to get in because of the quality of the programs, which include mentoring by the business community and post-graduate follow up surveys to find out how students fare in college and jobs up to eight years after leaving high school. Of course, they teach valuable skills like programming and IT management.
The IT courses are in high demand. Among the certifications available through the Microsoft IT Academy are Microsoft Office Specialist and in-depth training in specific applications such as Excel. The certifications could earn an entry-level business employee as much as $16,000 more in annual salary than uncertified peers.
"It's part of our effort to ensure that students are well educated and graduate with skills that can carry them through college and into the workforce," Diehl says.