Modern businesses and governments depend on data security for survival. And as cyber threats continue to become more sophisticated, there’s a crisis-level shortage of cyber professionals qualified to address those threats. That’s why Alabama is launching its new Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering (ASCTE), a public, residential high school based in Huntsville and open to students from across the state.
The new high school, created by state legislation SB212 and signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey in April 2018, is scheduled to open in August 2020. It will be the state’s third magnet school, joining the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham and the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science in Mobile.
With Huntsville’s concentration of high-tech and engineering professionals, the school is a natural fit.
“We like solving challenges in the Rocket City,” says Claire Aiello, vice president of marketing and communications at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. “Local companies have expressed a need for these workers, and we are answering the call to help Alabama supply more cyber systems and engineering professionals to this very needed specialty.”
The Business Case for a Cyber High School
Alabama doesn’t need a technology magnet school because its current high schools are failing. On the contrary, “public schools in Alabama are performing at unprecedented levels,” says Matt Massey, president of the new school and former superintendent of Madison County Schools, a graduate of Citronelle High School in Mobile County and Troy University. “This is not because our public schools aren’t working. The need is because we’re facing a crisis of cyber threats in this country and Alabama wants to start earlier to help fill those needs.”
Cybersecurity has become increasingly important for industries of all types. For instance, while enemies of the state historically attacked governments and government offices, “they are now going after the industries that are important to the country, such as financial networks and utility networks,” Massey says.
As a result, companies such as Alabama Power and its parent, Southern Company, have expressed interest in partnering with ASCTE to help develop the next generation of cyber professionals. As new businesses and government entities relocate to Alabama, many have shown interest in partnering with ASCTE as well, Massey says, because the need for qualified cyber and engineering professionals is widespread.
Globally, 82 percent of employers report a shortage of cybersecurity skills, and 71 percent believe this talent gap causes direct and measurable damage to their organizations, according to McAfee research. Currently, there are 4,400 unfilled cybersecurity jobs available in Alabama, and more than 300,000 in the United States, Massey says.
School Building from the Ground Up
Alabama’s solution to the cyber workforce challenge will be the first school of its kind in the United States. Creating something completely new is exciting and promising for future generations and for the success of security of the country, but it’s also challenging, Massey says.
ASCTE’s four-member executive committee meets monthly, and its 19-member board of trustees meets quarterly to make decisions and keep the process moving. Plans are to open the school in a temporary location beginning in August 2020, and to move into a permanent location by 2022.
Decisions about the number of students will depend on the level of interest, but Massey predicts that ASCTE will start with about 150 students in ninth and possibly tenth grades, and that it will grow to about 350 students in ninth through 12th grades, when it reaches full capacity.
Fundraising is an important part of the process, and many high-tech companies are lining up to donate. Huntsville-based companies such as Davidson Technologies and Torch Technologies have made large donations, and at the 2019 Paris Air Show, accounting firm Deloitte gave $100,000 to the school’s foundation.
Massey, who came on board in June 2019, is in the process of hiring his leadership team and will begin hiring teachers in the coming months. Once teachers are hired, the team will work together to develop the school’s curriculum. While some high schools focus on cybersecurity, ASCTE will be unique, because it will include the engineering piece of the puzzle.
“We’ll be teaching students to implement cyber protections throughout the engineering process, designing products and programs with cybersecurity in mind throughout,” Massey says. “Cyber protection is traditionally seen as the icing on the cake, added when a product or program is already developed. But instead of icing on the cake, our students will learn to bake cyber protections throughout the whole process. That’s the long-term solution, to engineer with cyber protections.”
Students at ASCTE will have a wide range of options for high school experiences and work opportunities after graduation. For instance, as the FBI relocates a large piece of its headquarters to Huntsville, there will be potential opportunities for students to gain experience in digital forensics for law enforcement. With close proximity to Redstone Arsenal, ASCTE and military leaders are discussing a potential ROTC program focused on cybersecurity. And a variety of high-tech employers in the Huntsville area are interested in working with students and providing hands-on educational opportunities.
“Our students will be exposed to internships, co-ops and field experiences throughout their high school careers,” Massey says. “Many will go on to college, but our high school curriculum will also offer a gateway to industry, and some local industries will be interested in supporting them through college. We’ve got industry that is knocking our doors down because they want our students in their company. Our students will have lots of options.”
Reaching Students Across Alabama
Those students will represent a cross-section of Alabama’s population, Massey says. While all students will go through an application process, school leaders are committed to securing a student body that will represent all regions of the state.
But ASCTE won’t just welcome applicants from across the state; it will also work with public school districts throughout Alabama to ramp up their own cyber and engineering courses.
In fact, that task is a requirement according to the legislation that established the school. It requires the magnet school and its personnel to “assist teachers, administrators and superintendents across the state in replicating cyber and engineering studies in their own schools.”
Massey looks forward to helping boost cyber technology and engineering instruction across Alabama. “We can’t solve this problem just with our own students,” he says. “Our goal is for this school to serve as a flagship school for the state.”
Student applications are expected to be available in January 2020, with selections made in March before the school opens in August.
Learn more and stay updated with news about the school at ASCTE.org.
Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Jackson is based in Madison and Keim in Huntsville.