School & District Management

Silicon Valley, WV

By Roger Friedman — May 01, 2004 10 min read
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A rural school offers state-of-the-art computer training program that challenges connventional wisdome about vocational education.

Their jacket collars pulled up against a stiff winter wind, a dozen or so students cross the bridge spanning the creek that cuts scenically—if a little inconveniently—through the Berkeley Springs High School campus. They climb a set of irregularly spaced steps up a long, steep hill, then duck down a dank and moldy staircase that feels as though it should lead to a dark alley in a 1950s noir movie, before entering a classroom like none other in West Virginia.

About 15 computers provide the highschoolers access to an online distance- learning curriculum that includes PC Maintenance and Repair and Basic Computer Literacy. But the rest of the blue-and-white-tiled space—probably the largest classroom in the Morgan County school district—looks like debris from an IBM warehouse explosion. Dozens of hard drives in various states of disrepair litter the room, and yards of cable are stuffed into corners and under desks. Everything’s organized, but the sheer volume gives the appearance of clutter. Students wheel their chairs from the study area to the workbench, collaborating on a range of projects.

A student helps wire a new security system at Berkeley Springs High School, W. Va.
—Photograph by David Kidd

This is not necessarily how Aries Technology, the company that designs and provides online coursework for schools across the country, intended their far-flung classrooms to look. But that’s the least of Curt Heldreth’s concerns. “I can think of at least five students who we kept in school through graduation because education suddenly became relevant to them,” says the slightly disheveled, casually dressed Heldreth, who started teaching computer technology classes four years ago at the 600-student school.

By combining cut-and-dried online courses with ample hands-on experience, Heldreth created a class that doubles as an IT department for the school system, a source of skilled workers for local companies, and even a small-business incubator for this rural, four-stoplight county. In doing so, the former military man and college professor also has blurred the line between vocational and academic education. “It’s an interesting experiment because we have some students who have 4.0s and others who have had academic and disciplinary problems,” he says. “Kids who probably wouldn’t have anything to do with each other are working side by side, relying on each other.”

With more massage therapists than lawyers, a handful of antique shops, and nary a whiff of a Wal-Mart, the spa town of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, would seem an unlikely source for the kind of technological savvy Heldreth is talking about. But one high school senior recently handled the cabling and installation of an entire network, including Internet access, at one of the town’s larger companies. And a former student who, before taking Heldreth’s classes, contemplated dropping out of high school ended up being the honor graduate of his computer technology class in the U.S. Air Force, where he assisted the instructor because he was so familiar with the material.

As Heldreth reminisces about his students, it’s abundantly clear that he’s glad he allowed Steve Paine, Morgan County’s superintendent at the time, to talk him back into the classroom. Relatively flush with funding from a governor who saw the importance of building a statewide technological infrastructure and bringing computers to schools, Paine had agreed to spend nearly $50,000 for the hardware, classroom, and online curriculum, but he needed a teacher. Enter Heldreth, who was then serving solely as the county’s technology coordinator.

Like high-tech savvy in a sleepy Appalachian town, Heldreth is a seeming contradiction. The56-year- old instructs dozens of students—60 or so a year—about the latest in computer networking; but he’s also a Civil War historian, with a particular interest in Stonewall Jackson. He retired as a major from the U.S. Army in 1984, but his style of classroom management could be described as organized chaos, not boot camp. And as a professor who worked at George Mason University, among other schools, he never had any interest in teaching younger students. But now he clearly thrives on his involvement in their adolescent lives.

“When I taught [at the university level], I loved knocking them out with a dynamite lecture,” says Heldreth, leaning back as far as his molded blue plastic chair allows, the lower buttons of his shirt straining with post-military girth. “Now, if I talk for more than 10 minutes, heads are hitting the desk.”

That doesn’t happen often. As students file in one morning in early March, Heldreth gathers them around his desk for a quick rundown of the day’s activities. After breaking away, most huddle in front of computers, clicking mice as they follow the online curriculum. Others gather in a corner of the room with Heldreth, who directs them to machinery in need of repair. Two students head off to another classroom, where they dismantle a computer and repair a stuck power switch.

It’s not just busywork. Heldreth’s students are responsible for as much as 80 percent of the district’s computer repair and construction, as well as its networking and server management. They recently reconditioned and installed new operating systems for 15 donated computers, which were then used to upgrade an elementary school’s technology, saving the county about $500per machine. The class is even winning over teachers, who initially were skeptical about allowing students to get inside their computers. Now they routinely stop Heldreth’s students in the hallways for a quick fix.

During the past few weeks, the teenagers have been in the halls more often than usual, as part of a project to run coaxial cable for new security cameras throughout the high school. Holding ladders and walkie-talkies, the half-dozen students in Heldreth’s afternoon class gather in a semicircle as he rattles off safety tips, then they break into teams. Several kids disappear into the media center, where they’ll guide the wiring through a conduit drilled into the ceiling. The rest circle around the ladders and begin removing tiles from the drop ceiling and pulling the cable down a hallway, scooting the ladders along and joking as they work. Aside from bracing a ladder from time to time, Heldreth does little supervising. He doesn’t need to—well before the bell rings, the students have managed to snake the cable the entire length of the hall.

“When richer counties have a computer problem, they hire a consultant to come in and fix it. In Morgan County, maybe there’s not as much money, so they look to students to do the work,” says Andrew Welch, now a freshman at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a graduate of two classes and numerous internships under Heldreth’s direction.

When a computer virus threatened to shut down the district’s computers last school year, administrators weren’t able to throw much in the way of resources at the problem—just Heldreth and his assistant. That’s when Welch and classmate Daniel Spangenberger stepped forward, paying off the county’s investment in the program in one hectic afternoon. Then a junior, Spangenberger—described by Heldreth as the best technology mind in the county—diagnosed the problem and determined the correct software patch while Welch mobilized some 50 teenage techs-in-training to implement the fix. Based primarily on what they’d learned through Heldreth’s classes and several internships apiece, the students eradicated the virus within 24 hours.

Both Welch and Spangenberger were top students before they took their first class with Heldreth, but like their classmates, they came from dramatically different places.

Spangenberger is a straight-talking, soft-spoken young man, the son of a nursing assistant and a factory worker, neither of whom attended college. He works two jobs in his spare time, voluntarily set up a computer café at the local Boys & Girls Club, and drives his mother to her monthly chemotherapy sessions. His bearing and hard work are what politicians have in mind when they praise the “American ethic” in stump speeches. He also has brains, with eight advanced placement courses and a healthy3.9 grade-point average on his transcript. He’s finished four classes in Heldreth’s program, building on an avid interest in computers he’s had since he was in grade school.

Classes in computer training blur the line between vocational and academic education.

Welch, on the other hand, is a kid with connections. He’s composed, even suave. His uncle is Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell, whose father is Secretary of State Colin Powell. Growing up, Welch’s family members would always consult him on programming the VCR clock, but the extent of his computer knowledge before high school was limited to what he read in a single step-by-step book. Four years later, as a senior, he was teaching Web design to middle school students.

Now, in addition to rushing a fraternity, taking a full load of courses, participating in student government, and trying to establish a social life at William & Mary, he runs, an online firm that designs and hosts Web sites, and is in the process of writing software to streamline the management of high schools and middle schools. He is one of a handful of students who have started their own computer businesses, and he has nearly 20 clients listed on his corporate Web site (which proudly proclaims its membership in the Berkeley Springs- Morgan County Chamber of Commerce). “I’m sure Andrew makes more than I do,” laughs Peggy Miller, the county’s director of personnel, whose office is next door to the mayhem of Heldreth’s classroom.

Both students have made impressions beyond Morgan County. While Welch runs his business from his dorm room in Virginia, Spangenberger was recently featured in a Newsweek article about bright kids from poor families who escape the attention of admissions officers at prestigious universities. The two are now best friends and work together on Welch’s business, their relationship solidified in Heldreth’s classroom.

“I think I got an experience in Berkeley Springs that I couldn’t have received at a larger or a richer school,” says Welch, who speaks with the enthusiasm and well-measured cadence of a skilled politician. “Because it was a small school, I got the individualized attention I needed and the permission to do unique things, to take some chances. I think other schools stop at the theoretical, but we don’t have that option.”

All of this raises a question that temporarily stumps Heldreth—is what he does, and what his students do, vocational education? “I don’t know,” he says after a few moments’ consideration. “The lines are blurring. Vocational is not just a place to shove kids and hope they don’t cut their arms off.”

Senior Daniel Spangenberger, who helped eradicate a virus last year, fixes PCs at a nearby school.
—Photograph by David Kidd

Instead, he likes to think of his classes as “science, applied.” Whatever the label, it’s clear that students can—and do—get different things out of Heldreth’s lessons. “If they want to work at a pedestrian level, they can do that,” he says. “The prevailing wage for wiring cable is $33.50 an hour. If they decide that they want a high-tech career, this will give them a big start in that direction.” And if they don’t want either, he adds, they still get valuable exposure to technology.

And in some cases, a newfound interest in the subject may be all that’s keeping a kid in school. This past year, 12 students in Heldreth’s classes graduated, and all went on to take classes at either a two- or four-year college. “Around here, it’s pretty impressive,” he says. David Temple, Morgan County’s current superintendent, agrees. “Sometimes the most important thing you can do is give a student a reason to come to school every day,” he says. “And if they can stop by and fix my computer in the process, all the better.”

As for Spangenberger, dozens of schools came calling after the Newsweek article; in late winter, with acceptance letters from schools still a month away, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is his current favorite. Having amassed enough credits to graduate after his junior year, he’s spending much of his final semester repairing school computers. “It’s not the learning material, it’s actually doing the work,” he says. “It’s useless to take the class if you can’t do the work.”

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