It’s Monday morning, and the seniors in Helene Johnson’s class at Suitland High School are filing in and are already getting their first instructions.
“Hoodies, are down …” she calls out, referring to her requirement that students not burrow into their hooded sweatshirts while in her class.
Johnson has had a 25-year career in IT in the intelligence community, and she’s teaching for the 21st century, but she jokes that in many ways she’s “old school.”
She wants her students to be ready to step into cutting edge careers, but adds, “Reading, writing and arithmetic! Those are the building blocks!” she said with a smile.
The students pick up the laptops they’ll be working with for her IT Cybersecurity class. They work independently and collaborate while they’re in Johnson’s class.
During her career in the IT field, Johnson said she rarely encountered “someone who looked like me”; she found African-American women were a rarity in the industry at the time. So she works to encourage young women to consider the field. “I want young ladies to love math and science,” she said.
Johnson is one of those Prince George’s County teachers who came to the school system with the kind of work experience the schools are looking for — people who can serve up real-world experience in the classroom. “It’s good to teach theory, but I’m talking about real-world scenarios because I’ve lived it for over 25 years,” Johnson said.
As part of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program in the Prince George’s County schools, many of her students are dual-enrolled; meaning while they are getting their high school diplomas, they are also attending IT classes at Prince George’s Community College and earning college credits too.
Mikayla Sykes, 17, plans on joining the Air Force after graduation, and feels she’s gotten a good foundation for a career in IT. A fan of fashion, Mikayla said her mother told her if she wanted to keep shopping for clothes — something Sykes admits she loves to do — she’d need a career that pays well, so Mikayla jumped into the IT program at Suitland.
Kevin Funes, an 18-year-old senior who’s always been interested in computers, has already been accepted to George Washington University. Funes said Johnson’s real-world experience has been very helpful. “I like the way she teaches,” he said, explaining that Johnson will often lay out scenarios the students might encounter in the work world, giving them insights they might not otherwise get.
Tarron Montgomery, 17, said he’d always wanted to go into the IT field. He’s especially interested in programming and cybersecurity. “I started when I was 10 years old,” he explained. “My mom saw something great in me when I hacked my grandmother’s computer one day,” he said with a bit of a smile.
Montgomery is hoping to attend UMBC. “I love the community there — they also have a very good cybersecurity program there,” he said.
Prince George’s County Schools CEO Monica Goldson has emphasized career and technical education. This month, the school system is spotlighting the 11 CTE programs offered; from financial careers to firefighting, the health professions and more.
Johnson said one thing she wants to impress upon her students is that if they put in the work, and have the interest, they can go far in the IT and cybersecurity world. Programs that expose them to the possibilities, like the CTE offerings, are vital, she said.
Kate Ryan reported from Suitland, Maryland.