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Four Lessons From Developing Computer Science and Cybersecurity Pathways in Rural Communities

Partnerships, teacher training, student advising, and research are key to developing successful pathways in rural communities.

November 29, 2021

At a Glance

Partnerships, teacher training, student advising, and research are key to developing successful pathways in rural communities.

Sarah Jenness Senior Manager

Developing and implementing high-quality college and career pathways requires hard work in any context, but the task demands additional considerations in rural communities. Rural schools often face disadvantages, including smaller budgets, less staff, and fewer higher education and employer partners in their region. Yet through the Lone Star STEM initiative, which implements computer science and cybersecurity pathways in high schools across Texas, we’ve also discovered unique advantages available to rural communities.

Through the Lone Star STEM initiative, which implements computer science and cybersecurity pathways in high schools across Texas, we’ve discovered unique advantages available to rural communities.

JFF launched Lone Star STEM three years ago to increase the number of Texas teachers qualified to teach in these fields and expand opportunities for dual enrollment, saving students time and money in earning postsecondary credentials. We provided grant funds to high schools across the state and partnered with the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Advanced Computing Center, and the American Institutes for Research to offer technical assistance and evaluation support. A five-year Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant from the U.S. Department of Education made this initiative possible. Lone Star STEM focuses on rural schools, which are less likely to have the staff and budget capacities to offer these pathways.

As we enter the penultimate year of Lone Star STEM, we’ve learned four important lessons related to developing computer science and cybersecurity pathways in rural areas:

  1. Using labor market information (LMI) to identify employers is essential.
  2. Partnering with high-quality online higher education programs makes dual enrollment classes accessible.
  3. Recruiting, training, and retaining teachers is a challenge.
  4. Building on close personal relationships nurtured in small schools leads to successful advising.

Lesson One: Use LMI to Find Employer Partners

Once we determined Lone Star STEM high school grantees, they received an Emsi Occupation Snapshot report for their region. This report included useful information about computer science or cybersecurity jobs in the area, median salary, workforce demographics, in-demand skills, companies in the area, and in-demand job titles.

When we reviewed the top organizations, we often found surprises. Many grant partners hadn’t heard of one or more listed companies in their region. Sometimes the company was an organization or startup that didn’t have a brick-and-mortar building, and sometimes it wasn’t focused on computer science or cybersecurity but still had many positions in those fields. For example, hospitals, financial institutions, higher education institutions, and local governments had positions available for jobseekers with computer science and cybersecurity skills and credentials. Once we identified potential employer partners, we encouraged grantees to research and reach out to the companies to establish mutually beneficial work-based learning partnerships. Students could gain career preparation and training, and companies could develop a skilled talent pipeline.

Lesson Two: Partner to Offer Online/Remote Higher Education Opportunities

A key pillar of the Lone Star STEM grant is increasing students’ access to and enrollment in dual enrollment courses, where they earn credit toward their high school diploma and a future postsecondary credential. The courses save students time and money, and they are usually taught by a local community college professor or a qualified teacher at the high school. However, neither option works when the nearest community college is 90 minutes away, or high school teachers lack the qualifications or time to teach dual enrollment courses.

Because Lone Star STEM pathways focus on computer science and cybersecurity, it opened the possibility of pursuing a fully online/remote degree program. This isn’t always an option for programs requiring hands-on learning or simulations in a lab or classroom space, such as some health care or manufacturing credentials. While our Lone Star STEM grantees are spread throughout Texas, several have partnered with Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas. Trinity Valley has the infrastructure to offer computer science and cybersecurity programs with all required courses available online.

Taking online dual enrollment courses has several benefits. It removes the challenge of transportation and accommodating travel time in students’ schedules. The approach also creates a wider array of postsecondary partners and access to expert faculty while broadening students’ networks to institutions outside their immediate community.

Lesson Three: Focus on Recruiting, Training, and Retaining Teachers

One grant partner, the Texas Advanced Computing Center, leads the WeTeach_CS initiative. WeTeach_CS has supported over 500 teachers in earning computer science certifications through a six-week program. Teachers who pass the certification exam become eligible for a $1,000 stipend and connect with a network of computer science educators and professionals. Many rural schools lack certified computer science teachers or only have one, so such networks are invaluable.

WeTeach_CS is a great initiative for training teachers, but teacher recruitment and retention challenges remain, especially for rural schools. Throughout the grant, we’ve seen several lead teachers recruited by other schools that pay a higher salary and offer more benefits and resources. This creates sustainability challenges. If a school only has one certified computer science teacher, it jeopardizes the entire pathway when that teacher leaves. Individual schools can try to offer incentives to recruit and retain teachers, but given the financial constraints those schools face, the solution to teacher recruitment, training, and retention will likely require state funding and policy support.

On the other hand, staff at rural schools often foster collaboration and demonstrate flexibility in filling multiple roles. This can spark creative solutions. One grantee is considering certifying the school police officer to teach cybersecurity. Schools that include grades six to 12 discussed certifying a middle school teacher, which would bolster course offerings and the student recruitment pipeline from middle to high school.

Lesson Four: Provide Personalized Advising

Computer science and cybersecurity jobs are in demand across the country, yet students and their families are not always familiar with the many high-wage careers available in these relatively new fields. Because rural schools have small student populations, teachers and staff can use their strong personal relationships with students, families, and other educators to advise students on the benefits of computer science and cybersecurity pathways. One of our grantees noted their ability to provide one-on-one advising would promote equity in recruiting students of color and young women of any race, who are often underrepresented in STEM fields like computer science and cybersecurity compared to a region’s overall demographics. Grantees also use labor market information to contextualize these fields for students and their families by sharing information about companies and jobs in the area, median salaries, and skills necessary to succeed in these fields.

Smaller, often tight-knit communities have deep, close relationships across stakeholders.

Celebrating the Resilience of Rural Schools

Successful pathways development in rural communities requires an asset-based approach. In our work with rural schools, we’ve seen a major benefit in rural areas. These smaller, often tight-knit communities have deep, close relationships across stakeholders. This facilitates student and family support, alignment in secondary and postsecondary curriculum, and employer engagement, which all encourage successful college and career pathways.

The contents of this blog were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Program. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

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