Jicar, Jordan and Junior, three students in the Microsoft certification program at St. Gabriel’s Hall, practice for a software specialist examination. The school, an outreach of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, provides comprehensive behavioral and educational support, as well as professional career training, to hundreds of at-risk youth each year. (Photo by Gina Christian)

If you work in an office or attend school, chances are you use at least one Microsoft Office application, such as Word, Excel or PowerPoint. For over 30 years, countless documents, spreadsheets and presentations have been created with these programs, which now boast more than 1 billion users worldwide.

At one Montgomery County school, students are not only learning Microsoft’s most popular software: they’re becoming officially certified as specialists.

“These kids score 90 percent or better in our pre-testing before they even take the official exam,” said Frank Bilotta, a computer science instructor at St. Gabriel’s Hall in Audubon.


The Middle States accredited school is part of St. Gabriel’s System, a division of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS). The hall is a residential treatment program at which more than 140 adjudicated young men ages 11 to 18 receive comprehensive behavioral and educational support.

Thanks to the school’s four career technical education (CTE) modules, students can also receive training in horticulture, culinary arts, building maintenance and construction, and Microsoft Office software.

Each CTE program provides third-party, industry-level certification, and those obtained for Microsoft skills – Microsoft Office Specialist, or MOS — can translate into both college course credit and better employment prospects, said Bilotta.

“At some schools, these certifications add up to six college credits,” he said. “And if I go for a job and the students go for a job, and they have certifications in this and I don’t, an employer is going to lean towards hiring them, because the certs are proof they know the software.”

Some 30 students per semester sign up for the software courses, where Bilotta drills students thoroughly in each application’s capabilities, requiring them to “practice, practice, practice” fonts, formulas and other features. To encourage his classes, Bilotta starts each student off with a grade of 50 points, adding more as various milestones are passed.

“If they do the work, it’s possible for them all to get a 100 and to attain two certifications in their first semester,” he said.

Bilotta ups the ante in the second marking period, though, resetting the score to zero. At the same time, he engages his students with real-world tasks, such as designing resumes and PowerPoint presentations.

In fact, one course project even uses PowerPoint animations to illustrate football and basketball plays, something 16-year-old student Junior finds quite practical.

“Football happens to be my favorite sport,” he said.

(Watch a sample PowerPoint presentation by St. Gabriel’s students.)

Seventeen-year-old Jicar, who is aiming for an NFL career after college, also favors PowerPoint, which he recently used for an overview of biomes, ecological communities that are specific to certain climates, such as tundras and deserts.

“I recently created a presentation on the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa,” said Jicar.

Jordan, 18, added that PowerPoint enabled him to easily insert online research into his latest oceanography presentation.

“With a few clicks, I dropped my data from the internet into a slide,” he said.

As they prepare for their 35-question examinations, administered online by Microsoft partner Certiport, the students build confidence and collegiality. Junior has become a help-desk resource for his classmates, assisting them with “step-by-step” guidance on software commands.

Because the Microsoft certifications are specific to a given version of the software applications, the students know that they will need to constantly refine their skills.

“It’s important to keep up, because it’s advancing every day,” said Jordan. “Technology is evolving.”

“It’s the future,” Junior added.

(From left) Junior, Jordan and Jicar, three students in the Microsoft certification program at St. Gabriel’s Hall, take a break during their software studies. An outreach of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, the Middle States accredited school provides residential treatment for adjudicated youth, as well as career training in four professional areas, including Microsoft applications. (Gina Christian)