Original Published on Jul 13, 2022 at 23:01

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

There were glitches along the way, but Pembina Trails Early College — a new alternative high school that marries traditional instruction with college-level computer programming and cybersecurity training — is celebrating its inaugural graduates.

David Moyer and 17 of his peers, all of whom have been honing sought-after skills in Manitoba’s booming digital media industry, were joined by teachers and family members to collect their Grade 12 diplomas at an intimate convocation late last month.

“I’m told that (‘we’re making history’) constantly,” said David, 17. “Overall, it’s been an amazing experience to be the first people to set an example of what students can do when taught with tech.”

PTEC is delivered to students free of charge by the Pembina Trails School Division and Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology, in partnership with Tech Manitoba.

The unique schooling model aims to fast-track teenagers into high-demand tech jobs by giving them an opportunity to study for their high school diploma at the same time they work towards a post-secondary credential. The industry association connects students to mentors and work placements.

The local partners took inspiration — for both their operations and name — from the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, also known as P-Tech: a reform school focused on college attainment and career readiness. IBM and public education partners in New York founded the initiative in 2011, in turn integrating high school and post-secondary education in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Not unlike his classmates, David was tapped to apply to Winnipeg’s PTEC because of his stand-out computer skills; whenever an elementary teacher had technical difficulties, he was called upon to problem solve.

The 17-year-old attributes his early digital literacy knowledge to spending much of his childhood playing video games and researching modifications for virtual environments.

“(PTEC) is a school for students who have a passion for technology, who are willing to go above and beyond whatever the curriculum delivers to open up their minds to not only Winnipeg, Manitoba but to the world, and make a difference,” said principal Jane Bachart.

When Bachart was a technology teacher, she said she frequently met students who had a niche skill-set that could not be supported by computer science curriculum.

This alternative school nurtures tech-savvy students’ interests and gives them formal training so they don’t have to figure things out themselves via YouTube tutorials, she said, adding all of the members of the Class of 2022 have gained confidence in themselves at PTEC.

Students, who currently hail from host schools in the south end of the city, spend part of their Grade 9-12 weekdays completing core subjects. The rest of their learning around programming languages, video game software and everything in between takes place at a division campus before they begin attending the MITT campus in Grade 11.

The program will be housed in Pembina Trails Collegiate when the state-of-the-art high school opens in Bison Run in September 2023. As demand continues to outpace available seats, Bachart’s dream is to eventually open a full-scale tech school.

PTEC pupils specialize in software development or network and systems administrator. Those who choose the latter option can spend an additional year completing a cyber defence program at MITT.

The inception of experimental tech programs — including PTEC, local MET School offerings, and CREATE at Sisler High School — mark a turning point for tech education in the province.

“We don’t have to fight brain drain as hard from our own city (anymore) because we can actually produce the talent locally and create jobs for the talent locally, which ultimately helps companies grow locally,” said Daniel Blair, founder of Bit Space Development.

When Blair founded the EdTech software company more than seven years ago, he spent countless hours doing internal training to bring new hires up to speed with tools and practices.

New school division programs, as well as MITT’s receptiveness to businesses’ emerging needs, ensure graduates are aligned with industry standards so onboarding has become much easier in recent years, he said.

David is one of the summer interns at the Winnipeg company’s Exchange District site. He was taught how to use Unity, a game creation platform used by professionals, and four programming languages: C#, HTML, JavaScript and CSS.

Throughout his studies, the teenager said he has learned about the value of adaptability, flexibility and soft skills. Perhaps ironically, the first PTEC cohort’s patience was tested as they all tackled unplanned information technology issues — not to be mistaken with their assigned homework — in their public school division.

The program’s 2018 launch was “a bit of a roller-coaster,” with students and their parents taking a leap of faith, according to the then-chief executive officer of Tech Manitoba.

Now an MITT dean and executive director of CyberWave, Kathy Knight said “the secret sauce” to success has been the trio of partners, each of whom serves an invaluable role.

“What we hear from parents is that many of the kids were disengaged before this. The students just found their community,” she said.

Knight noted the partners want to make technology careers more accessible to groups that have typically been underrepresented in the workforce, including girls and members of the LGBTTQ+ community.

This item reprinted with permission from Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba