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Why the Tech Workforce of the Future Is Coming From South Los Angeles

Foshay Tech Academy is giving students academic skills and preparing them for jobs.

Schools nationwide are looking to ensure that students graduate with the science, technology, engineering, and math skills they need to thrive in a digital economy. Thanks to the 9-year-old Foshay Tech Academy, students in South Los Angeles are learning the skills they need to compete in the tech workforce of the future.

Located in Jefferson Park, a neighborhood just south of USC, Foshay Tech Academy is a small learning community at the Foshay Learning Center. One of three small schools on the campus, the program enrolls roughly 150 students—nearly 100 percent are of color and about 80 percent come from low income backgrounds.

Teacher Leslie Aaronson came to Foshay specifically to run the Tech Academy. She started a mock interview program after her first semester at the school because she saw the need to prepare kids for job hunting in STEM fields. “I think everyone who participated that first year was related to me,” says Aaronson. Now interviewers include staff from Deutsch Advertising, various STEM nonprofits, and engineering professionals who have worked on everything from the Apollo space shuttle to top secret nuclear projects.

Aaronson asks each adult participant to treat the process like a real sit-down interview. The teens have to show up in professional dress with a well-prepared resume in hand. Interviewers pose real questions like "What are your goals and what skills do you have to offer?" Aaronson then has the interviewer give each student written feedback on everything from the professionalism of their resume to the clarity of their responses.

The conversations with the interviewers help the students get a glimpse of what a real interview experience is like, but it also gives them a chance to see what they need to do to really succeed in STEM. Steve Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior who wants to be an architect, had a mock interview with a staff member from Iridescent, a nonprofit that helps promote science, technology and engineering in schools. Rodriguez says his 20 minutes with the interviewer made him realize that if he really wants to pursue architecture, he needs to work harder at math and take more advanced classes. “I’m taking pre-calculus now,” says Rodriguez, “but the interview inspired me to do better so I’m going to take AP calculus next year.”

Many of his classmates, like 16-year-old Jocelyn Zambrano, are focused on learning as many marketable tech skills as they can and going to college. Zambrano has an impressive 3.87 GPA and is taking several AP classes. In particular, she enjoys using Photoshop and animating with Flash—she recently animated a chemical reaction for her chemistry class. Although she’s not sure what she wants to do longterm, Zambrano believes the skills she’s learning “will be helpful to any employer.”

Similarly, Daniel Lopez, a 17-year-old junior who wants to be an engineer, says that thanks to the Tech Academy he’s “learning to program websites—all the design and coding,” which he knows is putting him on the right track. “I’m going to college,” says Lopez, who hopes to attend either USC or UC Santa Barbara.

It’s not just current students who believe their Tech Academy and mock interview experience is helpful. USC freshman Ricardo Portillo graduated from the Tech Academy in June and says one of his first assignments for a college seminar class was to create a resume. Since he’d already done one for the Tech Academy mock interviews—and received feedback from both interviewers and Aaronson—he was ahead of his peers on campus. And, Portillo says, the Tech Academy prepared him to handle the rigors of college work. So far, the classes he’s taking “are mostly a review of things I learned at Foshay. The professors are just using different textbooks.” He plans to pursue civil engineering.

The STEM-prepared students coming out of the academy are certainly on the radar of employers. Wayne Hazle, a quality assurance engineer who works at Deutsch and interviewed several Tech Academy students says he found the teen participants “articulate, personable, and directed,” and more prepared than some of the adults he interviews. “There’s a couple that I wish I could snap up right now,” Hazle says.

But given the tough job market, are the teens worried about their future employment prospects? 16-year-old Abigail Montejo says she and her classmates are “very optimistic” about their futures. “I know studying technology will help me because it’s in high demand,” she says. “All I worry about now,” adds Montejo, who is taking three AP classes, “is studying so I can get to where I need to be.”

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