Tara High students learning ‘a whole ‘nother language’ thanks to IBM computer science program

Oct. 31 2018

Jahi Ayala learned about the computer skill of binary coding the other day and he’s eager to talk about it.

“It’s like speaking a whole ’nother language. It’s just so unique,” gushed the 14-year-old ninth grader at Tara High. “I love how it’s just ones and zeros. I love just talking in binary messages. I set up an entire alphabet.”

Ayala is among 31 students enrolled at this Baton Rouge public high school’s new Cy-TECH Academy, which began accepting students this summer from across East Baton Rouge Parish. It’s a partnership with IBM to train teenagers in computer science, engineering and other fields that the tech giant relies on for its workforce.

Tara students who enroll are not only pursuing their high school diplomas but they are simultaneously seeking associate’s degrees at Baton Rouge Community College in applied science via a mix of dual enrollment and in-person courses, and all free of charge.

“I found out I’m going to get my college diploma before my brother does,” Ayala bragged.

IBM provides mentoring and internships to participating students, and all who complete the program get to sit down for a job interview with the company. IBM also hired local educator Sarah Walsh to serve as its full time director of the program in Baton Rouge.

IBM pioneered the concept in 2011 at a high school in Brooklyn. Known as P-TECH — Pathways in Technology Early College High School — the technology giant has since launched programs at 100 high schools across eight states, as well as Australia and Morocco. It counts about 150 graduates so far in a program that can take as long six years to complete and has hired several of those who have completed the program.

Tara High is the first P-TECH high school in Louisiana.

“This is really special,” East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake told the students Wednesday at a ceremony at the school to celebrate the new program. “It’s one of a kind in our state, and we’re really happy to have it.”

“Hello team!” IBM’s Charles Masters greeted Tara students when it was his turn to speak. “I call you team because I truly consider you members of our team.”

Masters, who serves as vice president for IBM’s North America client innovation centers, said he’s excited about what these students will accomplish after they complete this program.

“Beyond IBM, I can’t wait to see what you do to change the world,” Masters said.

Tara High students also heard Wednesday from a former Trojan who has gone on bigger things, Sen. Bill Cassidy.

As Cassidy walked into the front door of the 9002 Whitehall Ave campus Wednesday, Homecoming Queen and “Miss Tara” Dajah Jarrell greeted the 61-year-old Cassidy and handed him a stole emblazoned with “Mr. Tara 1975” along with a golden and Trojan red royal hat.

“Now I feel a little like a Burger King commercial,” the senator quipped.

Talking to students, Cassidy emphasized how much things have changed since the early 70s when he went to Tara: “When I was here, personal computers didn’t exist.”

Since then, Cassidy said, computer literacy has become so important that he would like to allow learning a computer language to fulfill students’ foreign language requirements.

Several IBM employees who are serving as mentors were also present Wednesday.

Beth O’Quinn, a graduate of Woodlawn High, has worked for IBM in Baton Rouge for 33 years and is currently working as a talent manager for the company. She said her interest in the P-TECH program was immediate.

“These kids are our future right?” O’Quinn said. “We need to care about all of our children because they are going to be what our economy becomes, what our city becomes.”

Ernesto Morejon just started with IBM a month ago as an application developer and signed up as mentor at Tara High two weeks ago.

“I want to help people realize their dreams,” he said.

A native of Cuba who moved to Baton Rouge when he was 18, Morejon said being hired by IBM is the realization of his own childhood dream. He largely taught himself the skills he needed to get on with IBM and said he thinks there are lessons there for Tara students.

“I want to provide students a different perspective,” he said. “It’s not just what you learn here, it’s what you learn on your own. It’s important that you get to that point.”

View original article on the Advocate.

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