North East Independent School District will open a new cybersecurity magnet program in a building that previously housed a Walmart.

The high school program is scheduled to start in fall 2021 with an inaugural class of 150 freshmen. Students from across the district will spend a few class periods at the district’s new CTE Cybersecurity Center and then return to their home campuses for the rest of the school day, allowing them to participate in extracurricular activities, district officials said at a board meeting Monday night.

District staff began developing the program last fall after Superintendent Sean Maika came up with the idea for a cybersecurity program.

“[Maika] wants to create a space that is preparing kids for the workforce that is yet to come and for an industry that is untapped,” said Anthony Jarrett, NEISD’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Jarrett told the school district’s trustees that the job market for cybersecurity professionals has grown tremendously in recent years across all industries.

“You could think about any company – their information is in jeopardy every single day,” Jarrett said. “So if we don’t have a supply to meet the demand of employment for our kiddos, then we are actually putting all our selves at risk.”

San Antonio is home to the country’s second-largest concentration of cybersecurity experts and nearly 40 cybersecurity companies have headquarters in San Antonio, according to the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

In the last two years, other local school districts have invested in education focused on preparing students for jobs in the cybersecurity industry. In fall 2019, San Antonio ISD opened a career-focused high school centered on cybersecurity at Sam Houston High School. South San Antonio ISD offers a similar program at West Campus High School.

NEISD won’t just invest in cybersecurity academic programming at the high school level; the district also plans to expand opportunities for younger students. It plans to integrate more lessons involving cybersecurity and robotics for younger students and offer robotics clubs at all elementary schools. In addition, the district will focus on recruiting female students and students from underrepresented minority groups into the program.

At the high school magnet, students will learn about computer programming, network security, network engineering, and cybersecurity. The district will work with local colleges and universities to create dual-credit course offerings and an advisory board of industry leaders to shape the curriculum.

The former Walmart is located near MacArthur High School and features nearly 40,000 square feet. Credit: Courtesy / NEISD

The district offers some curriculum related to cybersecurity at Roosevelt High School through the Engineering and Technologies Academy, which will be phased out and replaced by the new program, said Ben Peterson, the district’s senior director of career and technical education.

The district purchased a facility for the cybersecurity magnet program two weeks ago. The building, which used to house a Walmart, is located near MacArthur High School in Northeast San Antonio.

NEISD will use about $2 million in funds from its 2015 bond to renovate the facility and make it ready for students by next fall. In addition to housing academic programming, the facility will serve as a competition space for robotics and other STEM contests.

Additional funding will be necessary to complete renovations on the former Walmart, said Garrett Sullivan, NEISD’s executive director of construction management and engineering. This money could come from a future bond or other partnerships, Sullivan said. The overall project will cost $10 million, he estimated.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.