By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

In today’s dismal economy, any program that gives young people entering the job market a competitive edge can be a real asset. Northeast Catholic High School’s Microsoft Academy does just that.

The academy, an accredited school within a school, is in its second year of operation, and at this time trains 150 information technology students in Microsoft Office applications – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Access. So far this year, 26 tested students have already received Microsoft-endorsed and industry-recognized certification.

“This provides our students with marketable skills and prepares them for better paying jobs upon graduation,” said Stanley Witalec, North’s president.

“Our students are learning how to be Microsoft Office specialists,” said Regina Craig, North Catholic’s assistant principal for academic affairs. “Once they get certification they are deemed experts and can work in offices training other people in Microsoft.”

While many, if not most, schools have IT programs that include some training in Microsoft, what makes the academy unique is that it offers the full range of programs. Also, the students can actually take the certification tests onsite at the school’s Resource Center, Craig noted.

The room used by Microsoft Academy has 32 computer workstations, and almost every seat is filled for the five scheduled classes. As a matter of fact, more students apply for the course than can be accepted.

Students, especially those who are preparing to take the certification tests, voluntarily remain after school to hone their skills, according to Bob Fitzsimmons, North’s Business and Technology Department chair.

“It’s amazing the number of kids who come back to practice,” he said. “Some schools will give them college credit for their certification.”

In fact, many of the students in the class do not intend to go immediately into the workforce after graduation from North. For them, Microsoft certification will be useful during their college years and will give them leverage in employment afterward.

Patrick Richardson, a senior who has received certification, intends to utilize it on a job application after obtaining a degree in business. Michael Lapteff, a junior, believes his Microsoft skills will assist him as he pursues further studies for a career in medicine, hopefully as a doctor. Neither student found the courses overly difficult – the biggest challenge was the amount of practice needed to achieve proficiency.

All concerned agree a key element to the program has been the professional ability of classroom teacher Diane Garofalo, who in this second year of operation has guided the academy to its current level of success.

With that said, the Microsoft Academy would not exist without the presence on campus of Northeast Catholic IT Academy (NCIT) which was founded by interested alumni as a means of both supporting the programs of the school and assisting the community at large.

A totally independent entity, it provided the necessary expertise to set up the school program and provides continuing support. Its other function is to offer similar information technology night classes for adults of the community. This may include people who are out of work, looking for a new career in a high-demand field or people already working in IT who wish to upgrade their skills.

“The big story is that friends of Northeast Catholic made it all possible,” said Betty Palmieri, chief operating officer of NCIT. The evening courses, she explained, run for two-and-a-half- to five-and-a-half months, and they are conducted in separate facilities than those used by the high school students.

The evening NCIT teaches both Microsoft and Cisco systems; Microsoft involves software, but the Cisco lab, with its banks of file servers, involves hardware systems, focusing on networking and coordinating how the various components of a network mesh together. The two systems complement rather than overlap each other.

At this point, Cisco classes are only held after school for interested North students.

Because Northeast Catholic is a boys’ high school, naturally, all of its Microsoft Academy students are male. But in the NCIT evening classes, most of the Microsoft students are female. On the other hand, most of its evening Cisco students are male, which would suggest that when the high school’s Cisco Academy is fully operational there will be plenty of students applying for it.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.