By Oscar S. Cisneros
When 17-year-old Keith Mogensen thinks about the computers in his high school, he not only envisions machines talking to machines, but has a plan for making it happen.
"If we had a big enough group, we could wire the school," Mogensen said. "Every classroom in the school has a computer, but not all of them are hooked up to a network -- from what we learned in semesters 1 and 2, we could do it."
Mogensen, a senior, and his Yucaipa High School classmates spent the school year learning about computer networks as part of the Cisco Networking Academy. Cisco Systems Inc., a leader in the networking market, is sponsoring academies like it throughout the nation.
By next summer 12 Cisco Networking Academies will be operational in schools in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Five academies were started last year in San Bernardino County.
After four semesters, students will have the skills necessary to create, operate and maintain the latest computer networks. And as more and more businesses and schools need computer networks, school officials say, these students will be in demand.
Mogensen maintains that, with some teamwork, he and his classmates could connect Yucaipa's computers through a network. From pulling wires through walls to setting up computer network equipment, they've learned it, he said.
"Between the group it could be done -- I'm not good at drilling but I can configure the routers," he said.
Starting this fall, Rubidoux High School will join Yucaipa with a networking academy of its own, said Neil Mercurius, administrator of technology for the Jurupa Unified School District.
"It's really giving the students a choice as they graduate from high school," he said.
An average of 20 students per class will learn fire and safety issues and environmental and work-hazard regulations surrounding computer networks, he said. Personal appearance also is stressed.
"They need to present themselves in that professional demeanor so that, as an employer, you can look at them say, `Yeah, this is a good kid,' " he said.
The district will spend more than $20,000 to set up the academy, he said. This initial cost includes the computers and devices needed to create a computer network and enough supplies to give students plenty of practice at making and installing wiring.
Yearly software updates will cost $1,200, he said. The fee pays for an extensive 24-hour Cisco support line and Web page that academy instructors can use to get questions answered, he said.
Both districts in Yucaipa and Jurupa will offer high school students separate training on competing networking software by Novell Inc. and Microsoft Corp. Novell Netware and Windows NT make most of the networking software that students will encounter in the industry.
Jeanne Galindo, educational marketing manager for Cisco Systems Inc., said teacher training is free and can be acquired through Regional Networking Academies. The regional academies service up to 10 local academies, she said.
The focus, she stressed, is on getting students ready for the workforce. If students pass a networking exam, they earn an industry-recognized Cisco Networking Associate certificate, she said.
"They can command salaries within the $28,000 to $30,000 range -- I've even heard it go higher than that," she said.
John Goller, general manager of custom operations for GTE, said his company needs people with the kind of training to be had at the Cisco Academies. He said he has had preliminary discussions about letting students do internships with GTE.
"The Cisco Academies have very high standards -- when they pass the academy exam they're very capable as technicians," Goller said. "There are no social promotions in the Cisco Academy."
Goller said academy graduates could work for Internet service providers, banks, school districts, city governments and local and long-distance telephone companies. Even gasoline stations need networking specialists to run ATM-based pumps these days, he said.
Goller said academy graduates will need the fire of real-world experience to temper their skills.
A large part of the academy training focuses on routers, the devices that act as traffic cops by directing the flow of information as it moves through computer networks and the Internet, he said.
Goller said the Cisco routers used at the academies tend to be very standardized. Students who learn to use Cisco equipment can learn to use other routers with relative ease.
But because technologies become obsolete and are replaced by new ones, Goller warned that those skills have a very short shelf life.
"If there's ever a skill that requires lifetime training, this is it," he said.
Not teaching students lifelong learning skills, technology or otherwise, would be irresponsible, said Denise Hoyt, a Cisco Academy instructor at Yucaipa High School.
"The most we could do is try to give the kids the most current information but keep them apprised of how fast things change," Hoyt said.
Yucaipa High School was a pilot school in the Cisco Academy program, she said. In exchange for weathering the tricky path of a curriculum in the making, the school received much of its equipment for free.
"It was frustrating sometimes because the curriculum is so new and the learning curve is so steep -- even for me," she said.
Most of the class material is found on the Web, she said. Students learn at their own pace using pictures, graphics and video straight off a Web page.
"The first semester was mostly using the online curriculum -- it's very good; it has a lot of graphics and video," Hoyt said.
Because Cisco saturated the pages with extra information, curious students were able to dig deeper than their daily lessons required, she said.
Besides providing an informative academy Web site, Cisco has also placed all academy instructors on an e-mail list, Hoyt said. This way, when an instructor poses a question through e-mail, everyone on the list receives the message and can easily reply.
"Anybody who's associated with the curriculum is on the list," she said. "It's been a really good way to share information."
Five networking academies were operational last year at: Fontana Unified, Morongo Unified, Hesperia Unified, Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified and the Colton-Redlands-Yucaipa Regional Occupational Program.