Freshman Michael Rivera-Albelo is one of 124 students enrolled in a Sam Houston High School aimed to build a pathway for students into the cybersecurity profession.
Freshman Michael Rivera-Albelo is one of 124 students enrolled in a Sam Houston High School aimed to build a pathway for students into the cybersecurity profession. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Although many of his peers aren’t sure what they want to be yet, Sam Houston High School freshman Michael Rivera-Albelo has his future already mapped out – and training starts now.

Rivera-Albelo, 15, is one of 124 students enrolled in a one-year-old program aimed to equip students for a career in cybersecurity. Students can attend Cyber P-TECH – the Pathways in Technology Early College High School simultaneously as they complete their regular high school coursework at Sam Houston.

Through these STEM-based elective and core classes, Rivera-Albelo will complete high school with an industry-specific associate degree necessary for high-wage, high-demand careers in cybersecurity. Nicknamed Cyber City USA, San Antonio has the second-largest concentration of cybersecurity professionals in the United States. 

“I’ll be doing the [junior] ROTC program, as well, and I plan to go into the Air Force after graduating,” he said. Rivera-Albelo said he might go to college from there, although his focus right now is on his current studies.

The program is the first of its kind in San Antonio and opened in fall 2019, but it will not be the last. Other local high school and college-level cybersecurity programs are in the planning stages or are being bolstered, as San Antonio educators recognize its potential to build tomorrow’s workforce and help kids in impoverished areas escape poverty. 

San Antonio has boomed as a cybersecurity hub due to its ties to the military, explained Angel Crockett, CEO at Inflow, a San Antonio-based cybersecurity company that works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense. With San Antonio housing four major military bases, cybersecurity became a local necessity, she said.

Crockett said San Antonio’s growth in the cybersecurity realm has been exciting to watch over the last two decades. When she began working in San Antonio, she recalls resources such as access to training being harder to come by – whereas today they’re starting to become easier to find, she said.

“The landscape has changed so much – you weren’t hearing about things like cyber insurance 10 years ago,” Crockett said, underpinning the amount of growth in the sector.

The rise in internet selling and buying has given way to a new generation of crime and needs an equally talented new generation of protectors, Crockett said. Robbing a bank, for example, looks a lot different today than it did in the 1980s, she said.

“Bad people used to do things physically; now it’s done virtually,” she said. “Everything you have is now on your phone.”

While the IT industry has been around for over 40 years, cybersecurity is a newer industry springing out of IT, Crockett said. Over the next 10 years, it will have exponential growth, she said.

It’s this exact reason Northeast ISD is one of San Antonio’s latest school districts to announce a new cybersecurity program for high school students. Next year the district will open a new cybersecurity magnet program in a building that previously housed a Walmart.

“San Antonio is one of the cutting-edge cities in cybersecurity, and it’s expanding exponentially across the globe,” said Anthony Jarrett, NEISD assistant superintendent. “Having a program like this makes sense with so many local military bases. The fact of the matter is that data is the new currency.”

NEISD’s 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 Career Technical Education (CTE) Cybersecurity Center and then return to their home campuses for the rest of the school day, allowing them to participate in extracurricular activities.

Jarrett said the district has been in contact with local colleges such as the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas A&M–San Antonio to find out what skills are needed for students pursuing cybersecurity after graduation. 

NEISD currently 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, Jarrett said.

“We’re really excited about trying to provide something for more kids,” he said.

Edgewood ISD is also creating its own P-TECH program, set to launch in fall 2021 as well, said Christopher Nester, chief of technology, transformation, and innovation, at Edgewood ISD. The district is working with Alamo Colleges to launch the program, Nester said.

To start the new program, Edgewood ISD had to first apply to the Texas Education Agency with a basic plan, which took about a year to put together, Nester said. 

“We’re wanting to bolster the local economy and provide immediate jobs for kids after graduation,” he said. “[I am a] firm believer in the primary avenue out of poverty [being] education. I grew up homeless in poverty in a lot of the same situations our kids are [in] here on the West Side. Education is the pathway out.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.