Tech training takes many forms — coding bootcamps, IT certificates, device repair for teens. Also, TikTok.
Since the start of the pandemic, the School District of Philadelphia has worked on getting students connected to broadband internet at home and making sure they have devices to learn. In April 2020, it rolled out a program to get Chromebooks into the hands of more than 117,000 students via the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia and more than $7 million in donations. The devices, alongside connectivity programs like PHLconnectED, have been a central part of remote, hybrid and return to in-person learning amid the pandemic.
But with the distribution of thousands of devices comes the need for routine repairs and troubleshooting. One West Philadelphia High School class is on it.
The high school is one of three in the district that have a computer systems networking program as part of its career and technical education, or CTE. In the 10th- to 12th-grade class, students learn the design, implementation and management of linked computers, peripherals and associated software, and get comfortable with the devices.
Marie Wilkins-Walker leads the class, which recently incorporated a Chromebook repair shop. Think of it like a Genius Bar or Best Buy’s Geek Squad: The class services computers within its school system, but also computers throughout the district, and they say they’re averaging around 50 repairs a week. The program is meant to reuse and recycle technology that’s still good, and teach hands-on skills.
“They realize technology isn’t going away,” Wilkins-Walker said of her students. “Even if they’re not focused on something in technology [for a career], being that person in the room who understands it and can do those repairs is valuable.”
It’s not only providing a hands-on way to implement what they’re learning in class, but also serving as a pathway for students to pursue tech jobs or careers beyond graduation. Ed Deitrich, the director of IT customer service and field support for the school district, said the students are primed to join the district’s Urban Technology Project, an IT apprenticeship program. The district is also in the process of making the repair shop a paid internship for students over the summer, Deitrich said, and expanding its capabilities for the fall.
Zeinabou Coulibaly, a junior in the class, runs a TikTok account that teaches basic Chromebook repair and maintenance so viewers can try troubleshooting on their own. She hopes to one day be a film director.
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“I think it’s going well so far,” she said. “We have like 500 views, and I made five videos today about how to care for your Chromebook and posted some students repairing them.”
Sophomore Nyeem Shubert hadn’t been considering a tech career until administrators put the CTE class on his schedule. But he’s since been learning how to do repairs, and became the screen repair lead recently.
“I thought to myself, ‘I could see myself doing this in the future, I might want to do this when I grow up,'” he said. “Now I’m thinking I can get a job in the summertime.”
Wilkins-Walker is hoping to open up the class to ninth graders next year, to get even more students participating. Two other high schools, Murrell Dobbins Career & Technical Education High School and Swenson Arts & Technology High School, have Computer Systems Networking CTE programs, but West Philly High is the only in-house repair shop so far.
As the program is currently structured, the training serves as way to bridge the gap between high school and college or to provide real-world technical training. She and Deitrich are hoping some will go on to the Urban Tech Project after graduation, and will work inside schools with students who were just like them a few years before.
“I think that’s powerful,” Wilkins-Walker said. “They’ll be closer to the age of my students than I am, and to see that clear pipeline and pathway, that’s a great thing.”