Ready, Set, Tech

Ready, Set, Tech

College readiness is serious business. Schools, higher education institutions, employers and nonprofits are as plugged in as ever to what it takes to make the grades—and then to get the J-O-B.

In an effort to promote college readiness and boost the population of traditionally underrepresented students on campus, UW–Madison’s Division of Information Technology (known as DoIT) launched the Information Technology Academy (ITA) in 2000. An innovative, technology-focused college prep curriculum, ITA targets promising Madison high school students of color as well as kids facing economic disadvantages.

Twelve years after the start of the four-year program, annual admission has grown from seventeen to thirty, with one hundred percent of academy students graduating from high school, ninety-nine percent going on to college and fifty-five percent accepted to UW–Madison as freshmen.

Starting with just two employees in 2000, the academy now employs four full-time and twenty part-time staff, with ITA graduates comprising about two-thirds of the teaching staff.

“From the University of Wisconsin and their support, to the teachers, staff and all the students that have worked hard to make their dreams a reality, this academy is all about the students—a true group effort,” says Erica Laughlin, ITA’s director since 2001.

Today the program has 120 students and, in addition to DoIT, is financially supported by the UW’s PEOPLE Program (Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence), the Evjue Foundation, the Madison Metropolitan School District and others. Recruitment starts in the final semester of eighth grade and admission to the program is highly coveted.

“Once a student is accepted, they are awarded a computer and software to use for the next four years,” Laughlin says. “If admitted into the University of Wisconsin, they receive a four-year tuition scholarship. So as you can imagine, there is a lot of competition to get into the program.”

And once students have made the cut, the real work begins. Classes are held year-round, including two Saturdays a month during the school year and up to two weeks of camp during the summer, and seven weeks of camp after high school graduation if they decide to attend UW–Madison. In their third and fourth years, academy students are required to do internships as well as take part in a mentoring program that pairs them with a professional adult in the community. Every other year a small group travels to the information technology mecca Silicon Valley to visit Stanford University, Google, Cisco Systems and more.

Laughlin says that’s an example of where the academy has the most impact. “It helps students see and understand the opportunities that exist out there if they work hard and make it happen.”

Derrell Connor hosts “Outreach” on NewsTalk 1310 WIBA, pens a column for Channel 3000 and freelances for Madison Magazine.