Bentonville Public Schools’ Ignite program is finishing its second year this spring, offering real-world training to juniors and seniors in high school. This year, it offered studied in construction management, health services, creative arts and information technology. In the fall, it will add strands in culinary arts and global business.
Part of a network of 26 schools with similar programs nationwide, Ignite mixes technical training with professional development and business education, said program director Teresa Hudson. She discussed the IT portion of the program during the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council’s monthly meeting at luncheon on Wednesday (May 10).
“We don’t want them just to sit down and learn Java like in a traditional classroom. We want to see the cutting-edge programming that’s going on and let them learn it, and let them dig deep into that,” Hudson said.
Two-hundred students are enrolled in Ignite for the 2017-18 school year. That’s the double the number in 2016-17. In the IT strand, there were 15 participants this year and 18 signed up for next year. Students spend two and a half hours of their day in the Ignite program, and their work is off-campus and includes time as an intern at local businesses.
Wal-Mart Stores, for example, took on eight Ignite IT interns for 2016-17. Adithya Sreekumar and Gillian Dirkson were two of those. Sreekumar works at least 10 hours per week at Walmart. He said the students are treated like employees, and he is one of three who have expressed interest in continuing their career at Walmart.
“I can honestly say after the six months I had at Walmart developing applications I learned more than I did in three years of programming classes at high school,” Sreekumar said. “A lot of times they just teach you the language, they don’t teach you a lot of real-world applications to it. At Walmart, we’re building a real app and bringing it to production.”
The company is looking for opportunities for them, Sreekumar said. He hopes to work part-time in the retailer’s IT department during his senior year. After that, he plans to study computer science at the University of Arkansas.
Dirkson said the Walmart intern group worked on several projects and learned a variety of skills, including how to use Google search to its fullest potential.
“A lot of people don’t know it’s a real skill. If you know how to really Google you can find a lot of information,” Dirkson said.
Earlier this year, she also redesigned the Bentonville Public Schools Foundation website. In the fall, she plans to attend the University of Tennessee, where she will major in computer science with a concentration on artificial intelligence, the crux of several projects she has worked on during her internship at Walmart.
The entire Ignite IT group also takes on a great deal of nonprofit and community service work, said instructor John Mark Russell. For example, the students visited an assisted living facility and acted as “tech gurus,” helping the residents learn to use their devices.
Castle Kerr, a former Ignite student, is now studying web development at NorthWest Arkansas Community College. He also does freelance work for local companies. While in the program, he built an e-commerce site for Hart Tackle and worked on the NWA Fitness & Health’s SuperFit Campaign, which encouraged Bentonville students to electronically track their health habits, with prizes for positive behaviors.
He came into Ignite last school year knowing only Java. In addition to learning new programming languages through Ignite,
“I learned how to teach myself,” he said.
Some students from the inaugural year of the program have found work. RevUnit, a software solutions company in Bentonville, hired two Ignite alums. Each was taken on as an intern and subsequently hired full-time. Chief Technology Officer Michael Paladino said their lack of college education does not affect their standing at the company, but he has encouraged them to obtain a degree at some point, in order to open up more opportunities at other places.
One goal for Ignite is to improve diversity in the program. About 15% of 200 Ignite students enrolled for next year fall within the economically disadvantaged category. Of the 18 enrolled in the IT program for next year, there is only one girl.
Dirkson, as a female IT student, said she does not identify with the lack of female interest in computer science.
“I don’t understand what the problem is. I love it,” she said.
Dirkson discussed the diversity issue with a program director of the CAPS program, an initiative that helped inspire Ignite, in Kansas City and came to the conclusion that the solution is threefold: start trying to reach female students at a younger age, work to reduce stigma and bias and “get parents behind it.”
When Dirkson was in ninth grade and made known her interest in programming, her mother was supportive of the idea, researched the subject and tapped into a wide range of online resources that helped her learn, including Code.org, the Computer Science Network and Codecademy to help nurture her passions — a key requirement to participate in Ignite.
Hudson said it requires independent learning, so in reviewing applications for the program, she looks at “passion for the field” more than grade point average. In fact, it has turned around the academic careers of some students, she said. In some circumstances, attendance increased and grades improved.
“Now, they have a purpose for coming,” she said.