An inside look at Alabama’s first-in-the-nation School of Cyber Technology and Engineering
Yellow Hamer News. Henry Thornton. October 06, 2020.

The new Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering (ASCTE) in Huntsville is the first high school of its kind in the United States. Yellowhammer News recently got an inside look at how it is operating, and what its plans are for the future.

ASCTE is currently midway through its first semester with students in the classrooms. A state-of-the-art campus is currently under construction on Research Park in Huntsville, but for this year and next, the school meets on the campus of Oakwood University.

Created by an act of the state legislature in 2018, ASCTE is a public magnet school for students in Alabama. It offers the opportunity for students to live on campus in dorms, so it can be attended by any high school age student in the state, and tuition is free for all who enroll.

Its school supplies list for the fall included “empty 2-liter bottles for a rocket project.”

Alabama has two institutions similar to ASCTE — the School of Fine Arts in Birmingham and the School of Math and Science in Mobile; they both also have students live on campus and are available for free to Alabamians who satisfy the admission requirements.

However, not one school in the entire nation shares ASCTE’s comprehensive focus on cyber technology and engineering.

The legislative effort in Montgomery to create ASCTE was spearheaded by State Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and strongly supported by Governor Kay Ivey and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. Those three figures all spoke favorably about how the project was coming along at a recent groundbreaking for the new campus.

Matt Massey is the president of the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering. The school’s board of trustees conducted a nationwide search for the right person to fill the job and found Massey right in their backyard. He had been serving since 2014 as superintendent of the Madison County School System.

“This was just different, where you get to start everything from scratch,” Massey said about taking the job at ASCTE, adding that what excited him was getting to “do things like change the way education has been done for the last 150 years.”

“We’re an investment for Alabama in itself; the Alabama students have an opportunity to get an education in K-12 that nobody else in the country has,” Massey said of ASCTE’s role in the state.

Before being elected superintendent in 2014, Massey spent years teaching math in the Madison County School System. That is where he met his wife, Jenny, or in his words, “the English teacher across the hall.” The couple and their three kids live in Huntsville.

Intelligent and welcoming in person, Massey has been granted significant authority to shape the pioneering new high school he leads. Massey has structured the organization after a university. Next to his office sits the dean of learning, who left a place in leadership at Athens State University to join ASCTE. Other staff members have the title “instructor” or “director.”

“We get to determine what are the graduation requirements for our students, and what classes do you have to take,” relayed Massey, who described his school as being “completely independent” of normal state standards but answerable to a 19-person board that approves the curriculum, graduation requirements and other important matters.

The composition of the ASCTE Board of Trustees is laid out in the legislation that created the school, and it includes government officials, university presidents and someone appointed by the governor from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.

Massey says he and his team did not feel like ASCTE “could guarantee quality” via virtual learning options due to its unique curriculum. That cost the school a student from the Black Belt who was admitted but chose not to attend because of COVID-19. Beyond the one student who could not enroll, the pandemic has affected the ability of employees to travel, recruit students and otherwise publicize itself.

As far as the operations of the school year on campus, the pandemic has not been overly disruptive. ASCTE has attentive testing protocols and space to quarantine kids if they get a positive result. All students are required to wear masks when inside, a rule which employees told Yellowhammer has been met with less than expected resistance.

Teachers at ASCTE have been hired from a wide range of backgrounds. The unique requirements of creating courses with no exact template demanded a degree of outside the box thinking, according to Massey, who added that he made a “concerted effort not just to hire teachers out of the local schools,” and ended up with only one instructor from a Huntsville area system.

The head engineering teacher came to the school after 30 years with Boeing, and his equivalent in cybertechnology comes to ASCTE from the Missile Defense Agency. Two other teachers moved from the Montgomery area and suburban Atlanta, respectively.

Yellowhammer News asked one ASCTE instructor, Brad Irish, what it was like to teach a group of kids with such specialized interests and abilities.

“Honestly, they are just like any other kids, they’re just a little more geeky,” he said with affection.

For 2020, the school’s first year, there are 70 students enrolled, 30 of whom are boarding on campus. A coronavirus-impacted recruitment process saw about 130 Alabamians apply for the inaugural ASCTE class.

Massey told Yellowhammer that ASCTE staff focused on middle school scholars bowl and honor band competitions for recruiting students, saying that a “grassroots effort” was required for the early days.

The 70 students are split into four teams of 17 or 18 kids, each of which takes all its classes together. ASCTE currently has three teams of 9th graders and one team of 10th graders.

Ninth graders take physics as their first science course at ASCTE, whereas the vast majority of public schools begin with biology, a small example of curricular freedom given to ASCTE.

All classes, in all subjects, “fit in line with the mission of the school,” according to Massey.

ASCTE does not and will not divvy up their kids into advanced level and standard level classes, according to Massey. Leadership wants each pupil to experience the same curriculum and believes their admission criteria selects for a high enough caliber student that separating by ability is not worthwhile.

“We have high expectations for all of them,” Massey explained.

A world history class at ASCTE gives focus to the timeline of important engineering advances across the ages; students may build a miniature trebuchet during a medieval physics enrichment class. English classes focus on professional and technical writing.

“Less poetry and more on writing how an engineer would write,” Massey said in response to a question on what an English course at ASCTE looks like.

Each student at ASCTE is given a laptop when they arrive on campus, a privilege not often enjoyed at the high school level. Conversely, enrollees are also subject to a stricter dress code than most schools: male students are required to wear collared shirts to class and no student is allowed torn or ripped blue jeans, for instance.

Arts are included in the ASCTE curriculum; in the current school year, students are taking a class on how to create digital music via software on their laptops.

Regulatory freedom also allows ASCTE to grade its students differently than other high schools. Both the letter and number scale used by the school differ from what is traditional, which Massey sees as an asset.

The old 100-point scale of grading, with its letter assignments beginning at 60 and changing every 10 points, frustrated Massey.

“We have sixty points to document an ‘F,’ there are 60 ways to fail! That is really kind of ridiculous,” he remarked about the traditional grading method.

Within ASCTE’s system, a traditional B grade from an 85 is roughly equivalent to a P grade from 3.5. Massey gives a detailed explanation of the grading system here.

Massey said that a challenge for the school in the early going has been the varying qualities of education received at the middle schools the kids attended previously.

He explained that one student who arrived might have taken Algebra 2 in eighth grade, while another might have gone to a middle school that does not even offer Algebra 1.

“That is why we chose to be grades 9-12,” advised Massey, who believes those years allow enough flexibility that pre-existing imbalances can be leveled off.

For some classes at ASCTE, no student will have previous experience in, outside of hobbies they might have pursued on their own. Engineering instructor Bryan Martin said his goal for the first year of teaching was to put all his students “on the same foundation” and teach them the basics of the field, such as how to use computer-aided design (CAD) software.

“Nobody really came in knowing CAD,” added Massey about the students’ relationship to the advanced software being taught, “It doesn’t matter where you come from, this is new for everybody.”

Oakwood University, a historically black Seventh Day Adventist school with a 1,600-acre campus, is hosting both the school and the boarding students on its campus in northwest Huntsville.

ASCTE’s cutting edge campus is scheduled to open in the fall of 2022.

Massey called Oakwood “a great partner” in the ASCTE endeavor and praised the university’s leadership for how accommodating they had been to their new neighbors.

A construction delay at the Oakwood dormitory over the summer meant that ASCTE’s students are living in small housing pods that are reformatted professor housing. A selection of ASCTE staff live alongside the students to provide guidance, oversight and care.

Yellowhammer News was told on multiple occasions that several of the boarding students have taken to the freely available table tennis and air hockey tables.

Others may prefer video games, which can be played communally on common room televisions, or board games, which are readily accessible and often kept going for days at a time.

Students are not allowed TVs in the rooms where they sleep in an effort to foster greater levels of community.

Still another group of attendees have created and tend to a garden, even forming a club around their new agricultural interest. Club participation and recreation are big parts of afternoons on campus. Massey is the sponsor of the fishing club, which he says he particularly enjoys.

Yellowhammer asked the school counselor at ASCTE what the biggest challenges are, from her perspective, among the students.

“Just kids adjusting to living away from home as 9th graders. That is a pretty big deal when you are 14 years old,” she responded.

Students were not allowed to choose roommates upon enrolling at ASCTE. Administrators see having to cohabitate with someone who may come from a different background or have differing views as a positive aspect of the boarding environment.

ASCTE’s meals are prepared by the kitchen staff at a nearby event center and brought to the campus for consumption, an arrangement that proved fortuitous for both organizations as the coronavirus pandemic has greatly reduced the demands on the event center.

Boarding students have meals provided each night, but also have kitchens available for light cooking.

The school does charge students for meal plans, but assistance is available to any individual where the cost might strain finances at home.

Students told Yellowhammer they generally enjoyed the on-campus lifestyle and how close-knit they had become. A teacher who resides alongside the students praised the “family atmosphere.”

The original plan for weekends at ASCTE included many field trips to spots like movie theaters, but the coronavirus pandemic has put a dent in those plans. Outings to escape rooms and local shopping centers have been accomplished with the proper precautions.

Jordan Bolte, ASCTE’s director of residential life, came to the school after a string of jobs in the field at colleges, most recently at Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

“We have a lot of students that are not only articulate, but also thoughtful, about why they are here and what they want to do,” Bolte told Yellowhammer about ASCTE kids.

“When I was 14, I think I had just discovered I had thumbs,” he added jokingly.

“I think it takes a special kind of student to come here and say, ‘I want to be an engineer, I want to be a programmer, I want to work in cybersecurity, and here is how I think I will get there,'” he advised with respect to the students he deals with each day.

Plans currently have ASCTE doubling in size each of the next four years, with a goal of over 320 students enrolled by 2024.

For the foreseeable future, half of ASCTE’s enrollees will be students in the Huntsville area; the new campus will have 150 beds for boarding students.

The School of Math and Science in Mobile, which requires all attendees to board, has around 280 students. The School of Fine Arts, which allows some students to live at home in a similar fashion to ASCTE, has around 340 enrolled.

Every one of Alabama’s 138 public school systems is guaranteed a spot for at least one student in each incoming class of students at ASCTE once it reaches full enrollment.

Massey says a priority for him is “reaching farther into South Alabama” for enrollees in the coming years. He says that many students currently enrolled were referred to the school by superintendents or pushed to apply by their middle school principals.

Courses developed at ASCTE will eventually be exported to any other school in Alabama that wishes to add them to its curriculum. Officials at the institution say that only a patchwork of engineering classes currently exist in Alabama’s public schools.

On top of developing a number of courses that other schools could teach if they wish, Massey also envisions “cyber camps” in other counties that ASCTE could play a role in shaping so the school can demonstrate benefits to the state outside the Huntsville area.

Students at ASCTE in the coming years will take a biotechnology course that is being developed in concert with scientists at the world-renowned HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, one of the many ways ASCTE draws on the resources available in the Rocket City to strengthen its offerings.

Martin, the engineering instructor, and Massey both told Yellowhammer that they collaborate with “industry partners” on the development of things like their engineering courses.

“We’ll connect Raytheon with them, we’ll get Boeing and some of their cyber folks to come and help with how to incorporate cyber and engineering,” explained Massey.

Raytheon is, to this point, the biggest industry backer of ASCTE, having given $4 million towards the new campus. The legislation that created ASCTE allows for fundraising from private sources to help boost the school beyond what is possible with state funds.

In media appearances, Raytheon executives have expressed that they see a growing shortage of cyber and engineering workers in the coming years and want to encourage kids to focus on those subjects in school.

A large selection of faculty housing is being built alongside the dorms on the new campus, a decision Massey says was influenced by what he saw on the campuses of Baylor and McCallie, two successful private boarding schools in Tennessee.

Massey remarked to Yellowhammer News about what he would like to see once his students become graduates.

“We have great universities here in the state. We want our kids to see those opportunities, and we want them to stay in Alabama. We want them to go to college in Alabama and come back and contribute,” he replied.

Massey added, “Our students are going to get a leg up on some of these industry and governmental agency opportunities that other students in other states don’t have.”

One student, a sophomore who had been homeschooled in years past, said ASCTE “was not all what I expected.”

“It is probably better,” she continued, “It is an amazing school.”

Joshua Ledlow, a 10th grader at ASCTE, told Yellowhammer that ASCTE is “leaps and bounds better” than his previous school experiences.

“All of the teachers are very passionate about what they are teaching, and that is very clear in the way they communicate what you need to learn,” he stated.

A career in the military, either the Air Force or Army, is the goal for ASCTE sophomore Sam Ware.

“To me, the main reason I wanted to come here was there is a lot of, I guess you could say, growing up that you have to do,” explained Ware, one of the boarding students.

He believes the ASCTE curriculum and environment are what he needs to prepare himself “to be a leader down the road.”

When a classroom of students was asked by Yellowhammer if they would recommend ASCTE to their friends with similar interests, they all nodded their heads, “yes.”

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