by Leslie Trahan
North East ISD sophomore Seyma Kilic already has her career path planned out. Kilic, who attends the district’s new Institute for Cybersecurity and Innovation (iCSI), is on track to become a penetration tester, a growing field within the cybersecurity industry.
iCSI, which opened its doors in the fall of 2021, uses real-world problem-solving scenarios to train students in cybersecurity and networking. The program offers up to six industry certifications that help prepare students to enter the workforce straight out of high school. Classrooms resemble state-of-the-art security operations centers, and the campus contains two networking labs, along with a 10,000-squarefoot multipurpose arena. The facility, which makes use of modular walls, is designed to adapt to the needs of the industry.
“[iCSI] opens up a lot of doors,” said Kilic. “It’s the industry certifications — which colleges offer and take pride in — as well as the hands-on experience I get from my instructors and the specific tools I learn about that are actually used in the workforce.”
Designed with industry guidance
The new school is a collaboration among the administration of the San Antonio school district, its board of trustees, and the local business community. San Antonio currently boasts the second-largest cybersecurity hub in the United States, outside of Washington, D.C., with plenty of career opportunities available for well-qualified students.
Finding a way to connect students with those high-paying jobs made sense, according to NEISD Superintendent Sean Maika.
“Looking across the U.S., there really isn’t a facility like this at a high school level,” Maika said. “We didn’t just design this from an educational perspective. We used the industry to tell us what it should look like.”
The result is a unique magnet school that is poised to capitalize on the growing demand for cybersecurity professionals while strengthening NEISD’s portfolio of specialty programs in a greater metropolitan area that offers families plenty of educational choices, including 19 public school districts and dozens of other private and charter options.
“We kept it very quiet, and that was by design,” said Maika. “In today’s world, everybody’s competing, even in education.”
According to NEISD Board President Shannon Grona, one of the biggest hurdles in getting the school off the ground was making sure parents and students were ready to take advantage of the program. Early surveys showed a lack of interest in a cybersecurity and networking magnet school, prompting the district to launch an information campaign for parents and students.
“We thought we were going to have 150 seats for our first year,” recalled Grona. “We went from basically zero interest when we were first talking about the program, but once we started implementing and talking about it, we had overflow.”
Grona hopes iCSI will not only feed the pipeline of careers in the cybersecurity industry but also prepare students for a variety of pathways after high school.
“We as board members know that not all kids want to go to college,” said Grona. “That’s one of our goals — to ensure that whatever our students want to do after high school, we’re preparing them, whether that is going to college or going straight into the workforce or going into the military.”
In the cybersecurity field, industry certifications are a vital part of that preparation. To make sure all students can obtain these certifications, the district partnered with Pearson to develop a testing site on the campus.
“NEISD is 59% low SES, so rather than a child having to find a ride to a facility, they can come right here, and we can help them,” said Maika. “We pay for them to take it, so we truly tried to eliminate that barrier of economics.”
The district also prioritizes transportation to the iCSI campus. Students are bussed between their home campuses and iCSI for a two-period block of classes each day. This ensures students have easy access to the facility and allows them to stay connected with friends and teachers on their home campus.
“With some of our other magnet programs, students have to leave their home campus and their community,” explained Grona. “What’s great about this is it’s two periods during the day, so they can do sports, they can have other classes with their friends that they grew up with and still go to this magnet school.”
According to Kilic, this work has paid off in engagement levels for students.
“Kids are willing to go to summer school to take this class and be a part of the cohort of kids,” she said. “It’s the highlight of our days to come here and be learning cybersecurity and getting hands-on experiences at a facility like this.”
With an inaugural class of roughly 150 students, iCSI currently employs only two teachers. But as enrollment grows and the facility expands in the coming years, the district is eyeing ways to create a pipeline of teaching staff. Maika said the district will consider both industry professionals and trained educators for these positions.
“You don’t have to be a tech person to do cyber. You have to have curiosity. You have to be willing to persevere,” said Maika. “That’s the thing that industry focuses on, not just the hard skills of cyber.”
iCSI instructor Josh Beck has been teaching cybersecurity and networking courses at NEISD for nine years. Beck, who started his career as an English teacher 21 years ago, said staying up to date with industry trends is the biggest barrier for educators who have never worked in the cybersecurity field. “You have to be an autodidact, you have to be able to educate yourself,” he said. “As a teacher I already have classroom management, but someone coming from industry has the exact inverse.”
Attracting candidates from the cybersecurity industry, which has a median annual salary of roughly $100,000, can be a challenge. As a district of innovation, NEISD makes use of a provision that allows them to suspend certifications for career and technical education teachers. The district also offers a 12-month contract, rather than a standard 9-month one. According to Justin Missildine, senior director of Career and Technical Education at NEISD, this decision not only helps draw new talent to the school but also supports community engagement.
“When the summer hits, [the iCSI teachers] don’t leave. They’re still on contract and they’re still working,” said Missildine. “If you’re going to have community involvement, you have to have staff on site. It allows us to be financially competitive and to continue to utilize the facility.”
Room for growth
Elias Bou-Harb, director of the Cyber Center for Security and Analytics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, believes schools like iCSI are essential to keeping the cybersecurity industry at the top of its game.
“In Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and even smaller cities, there is a huge demand on cyber training in general, and the demand keeps on growing across state and country,” said Bou-Harb. “As cyber attacks continue to increase, the bad guys are always ahead of us. Any training we can do even at the early stages will help us in the big picture of addressing this problem.”
Maika hopes iCSI will be able to help address these concerns for years to come. The campus, which was built in an old Walmart, has plenty of room for expansion. The district would ultimately like to take on 600 students, which would include building more classrooms and eventually developing a competition arena.
“Our challenge will be, as this facility goes to scale and we have freshmen through seniors here, do we need to expand, or can this facility handle the demand?” said Maika. “It will all be based on supply and demand. If the demand is there, we will have to figure out the supply.”
This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue of Texas Lone Star. Photos courtesy of Jason Gatell, NEISD Media Production.