The Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center on Wednesday will officially open a new information technology academy that will allow highschoolers to graduate with industry credentials in computer networking.

The $310,000 facility, built over the summer by combining two existing classrooms at CATEC, marks the first opportunity area highschoolers have had to gain professional information technology credentials.

“The thing that is different between some of the other STEM programs where you have an academic focus is we provide an actual hands-on work environment in the building, which is different than an academic situation,” said Catherine Lee, CATEC director of special projects.

Students who enter the academy in early high school could graduate with a Cisco Certified Network Administrator through Cisco Systems or the CompTIA A+ credential, which is considered to be the building block of an IT certificate.

Students in classes at the Cisco academy will also earn credit at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Eventually, high school students will be able to graduate with a workforce credential and an associate’s degree from PVCC, said Adam Hastings, dean of business, mathematics and technologies.

“This experience is different because we have created a four-year pathway,” he said. “This isn’t dual-enrollment, this is college.”

That path will not be open immediately, Hastings said.

“This really is new. This is the thing that we were working towards when I was at CATEC five years ago,” said Hastings, former CATEC director. “I really hope we are successful with it.”

The Cisco academy, which was approved by the CATEC center board in December, will follow a curriculum provided by the technology giant.

To lead the classes, the center hired Garrick Whitehead, a Cisco-certified instructor who previously taught community college courses in Hickory, North Carolina.

“This is a program Cisco has been running for a while, and it is all over the country and in other countries, as well,” Lee said. “They have space requirements, they have equipment requirements and they have certain system requirements.”

For Whitehead, moving to CATEC is an opportunity to better prepare students for work in information technology.

“In addition to the courses I taught, a lot of the outreach efforts we did were going out to the high schools, trying to reach students early on,” he said. “When I saw what CATEC was doing, addressing that population by starting at the younger ages, with the students to get that edge and advantage, I jumped at the chance.”

The two rooms — featuring modern furniture, new carpeting, wall-to-wall whiteboards and drop-down electrical outlets — have the capacity to host 40 students at a time for both morning and afternoon classroom sessions, said CATEC Director Daphne Keiser.

When the school year begins Aug. 23, the academy will host about 20 students in the morning and 20 in the afternoon, Keiser said. To reach full capacity, CATEC will need to hire a second instructor.

“It is going to give our students those workforce skills that are going to make them viable in the industry,” Keiser said. “I think it is really important. I think that this program is going to be extremely popular.”

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