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W.Va. students build, repair computers

January 14, 2002

W.Va. students build, repair computers



By ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY
andreabh@herald-mail.com


When Jessica Fox and Amanda Close began their junior years at Berkeley Springs High School last fall, they had no idea they soon would gain work force training that likely will guarantee them high-paying jobs straight out of high school.

The girls said they were equally surprised when they built their first working computer from a pile of unconnected parts.

Jessica, Amanda and other members of technology instructor Curt Heldreth's A+ and Network+ computer certification classes learn how to assemble computers, install software, make repairs and master customer service.

"There are such good jobs in technology," said Amanda, 17. "This kind of certification really sets you up for life."

Students huddle over motherboards, power supplies, heat sinks, RAM chips and the other computer parts cluttering desktops in Heldreth's classroom as they piece the parts together to form working computers.

"Vo Tech isn't what it used to be. This isn't shop class," Heldreth said.

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"This is Curt's Repair Shop and I'm their coach. Students here get the real world stuff that makes the program magical."

Heldreth's students build and repair 90 percent of the computers in the Morgan County school system. Work orders line a bulletin board in the classroom. The students built 36 new computers last year and expect to double that number this year, he said.

Ten of Heldreth's students completed two, 50-hour semesters of A+ training and earned their certification last year. The program was so successful in its first season that Heldreth last fall added two semesters of Net+ certification training, which teaches students how to connect computers, he said.

"The thing's taken on a life of its own," Heldreth said. "It's done better than we ever expected."

Most A+ certified computer repair technicians make $50 to $60 an hour, Heldreth said. He figures the school system saves at least $40,000 annually in computer-related expenses because his students do the work for free.

At least most of them do.

Senior technology students Keith Bates and Ronnie Payne last year launched their own computer repair business - Nerds 'R Us - because they got so many repair requests from people in the community who heard about their abilities, Heldreth said.

Keith and Ronnie, who earn $25 an hour for their skills, have done computer upgrade and repair work for local radio stations, doctors' offices and the county's health department and courthouse, Heldreth said.

They don't have their driver's licenses, but they own a business license.

Heldreth would put Keith, Ronnie and at least three more of his advanced technology students - A.J. Sugg, Austin Bontan and Shane Williams - "up against any repair technician in the state of West Virginia. They're that good," he said. "I trust them completely."

Teachers were skeptical about students handling their computers until "they saw everything these kids could do," Heldreth said.

Students manage the high school's sophisticated computer network. One A+ student designed a school Web site, containing such resources as discipline referral forms and internal memos, which only teachers can access, Heldreth said.

A.J., Austin and Shane said they can build a computer and install its software and operating system in about 45 minutes. They are thinking about starting their own repair business to help fund their way through college, they said.

Now, the three students can't walk through the halls of their school without being stopped for computer-related questions or repair requests, they said.

Amanda's grandmother asked her to build her a computer for Christmas, she said. The A+ class has buoyed Jessica's job at a local computer repair shop, she said.

"Other classes are just books," said Austin, 18. "This is something you do. It's great."

Students do their lessons online following the Arizona-based Aries certification course. They work at their own pace, devoting about 60 percent of their time to practicing the skills they read about on a computer screen, Heldreth said.

"If you don't have a hands-on, you don't learn," Amanda said. "Reading can kind of go in one ear and out the other."

Review questions follow each online lesson, and students take an online exam after the fifth lesson in each unit. Lectures are rare, Heldreth said.

A+ student Zac White, 17, changed his career plans from engineering to computer repair after he started taking Heldreth's class and built several computers from scratch, he said.

"Once I got into it, I saw I really liked it," Zac said. "It's really been a life-changing experience."

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